World MS Day: Working Toward a Greater Sense of Independence

With no cure in sight, therapies that boost quality of life for people with MS are important advances

Neurologist Bruce Cree at the University of California, San Francisco Medical Center believes that more therapies are needed to help MS patients remain independent.  

NEUROLOGIST BRUCE CREE AT THE UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA, SAN FRANCISCO MEDICAL CENTER BELIEVES THAT MORE THERAPIES ARE NEEDED TO HELP MS PATIENTS REMAIN INDEPENDENT.

As the theme of this year’s World MS Day is “independence,” it’s fitting to remember that for the more than 2 million people around the world with multiple sclerosis (MS), small gains in treatment effectiveness can mean big gains in quality of life and independence.

MS is a chronic neurological disorder that’s usually diagnosed in early adulthood—between the ages of 20 and 40—and that often gets progressively worse over the following decades. Symptoms vary over time and among patients but include fatigue, vision and speech problems and impaired coordination—all of which can make doing everyday activities like eating, bathing and dressing challenging.

In one survey, 65 percent of people with MS said mobility was the greatest challenge related to the disease. Others ranked fatigue, pain and muscle spasms as the most debilitating aspects. Indeed, 80 percent of MS patients will experience some degree of impaired mobility within 10 to 15 years of being diagnosed with the disease.

“MS tends to affect people at the prime of their lives when they are busy working and raising families,” Dr. Bruce Cree, a neurologist at of the University of California, San Francisco Medical Center, said. “As a consequence of the neurological impairments of the disease, people often lose their ability to work.”

World MS Day 2016: Toward a Greater Sense of Independence

Indeed, 55 percent of patients in one study were unable to stay employed following diagnosis. The economic costs of the disease—including medical care and lost productivity—are huge, estimated at $10 billion per year in the United States alone.

Over time, patients become reliant on family and caregivers to help them carry out even the most basic tasks, like going to the bathroom. Depression, social isolation, strained family relationships and divorce are all common in MS patients, according to Dr. Cree.

There is no cure for MS, but a growing number of therapies help prevent symptom flare-ups and slow the progression of the disease. While most previous MS drugs were injections, some newer therapies come in convenient pill form.

New therapies can certainly improve the quality of life for many patients.

“New therapies can certainly improve the quality of life for many patients,” said Cree. “Not only have studies found that patients greatly prefer pills to injections.”

Still, no existing treatment addresses the greatest burdens of the disease for patients with advanced MS—fatigue and cognitive impairment.

“An MS patient might look like everyone else,” said Dr. Cree. “There’s not always something on the surface that tells you they have MS. But their quality of life can be greatly impacted by aspects of the disease that are not obvious.”

To improve the quality of life, future therapies to treat MS must not only slow the progression of disease but also enable patients to be more independent and boost quality of life.