MS Awareness Week: How To Talk About ‘Embarrassing’ Symptoms

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Multiple Sclerosis (MS) Awareness Week is on 22-28 April this year, and charities and other health organisations are coming together to help improve the lives of people affected by this distressing condition. This year, the focus will be on the symptoms of MS that can be difficult to talk about.  

MS is a neurological condition that causes damage to the central nervous system. The MS Trust explains that the term ‘sclerosis’ means scarring, which in the case of MS means damage caused to the nerves in the brain and the spinal cord. The term ‘multiple’ refers to the fact that the damage can occur in more than one place.

The damage occurs when the immune system mistakenly attacks the covering that protects the nerves, which is called myelin. The body can repair the damage up to a point, but eventually the myelin wears thinner or may be eroded completely. This makes it more difficult for messages to travel between the body and the brain.

Sometimes, the messages are able to reroute themselves, but over time the condition can get progressively worse and the messages are not able to travel quickly or at all, resulting in a range of symptoms. These are wide ranging, because MS affects everyone differently. The symptoms can also vary in intensity from day to day.

Some of the most common symptoms include tiredness and fatigue, skin sensations such as numbness or tingling, memory and cognition problems, eyesight problems, and walking difficulties such as weakness or heaviness in the legs, and frequent stumbling or tripping. 

MS can also cause problems with the bladder and bowel, and sexual difficulties. These are obviously very personal issues that many people are reluctant to discuss with a health professional. This year MS charities and other related parties are working together to help break down the stigma and make it easier for people to discuss their problems.

MS can cause people to need to urinate more frequently and urgently, and have more difficulty in emptying their bladder, or episodes of incontinence. This can obviously restrict the quality and enjoyment of life for the person with MS, leading them to avoid everyday activities such as exercising and socialising. 

It’s important to be aware that these symptoms can be caused by other factors, such as an enlarged prostate in men; pregnancy, childbirth, or fibroids in women; urinary tract infections;  abdominal surgery; and excessive consumption of caffeine or alcohol. However, they should always be discussed with a health professional.

Sometimes, the problems can be eased or resolved by a few lifestyle changes. These include monitoring fluid intake and trips to the bathroom to understand how this might affect the bladder; staying properly hydrated; and avoiding substances that irritate the bladder such as caffeine, alcohol, spicy foods, and fizzy drinks. 

Strengthening the pelvic floor with some exercises can also be beneficial, and it also helps to maintain a healthy weight and avoid smoking. Bladder problems may also be treated with medication, botox injections, or a catheter. 

MS can also cause bowel problems such as constipation, incontinence or diarrhoea. All of these symptoms may occur in one person, and the problems may fluctuate over time. If you also notice blood in your stools, you should see a GP immediately, as this may be a sign of bowel cancer. 

It may be difficult or feel embarrassing to bring up this topic with a health professional, but they will be used to dealing with these symptoms and will be able to suggest a range of treatments. These might include changing your diet to include more fibre and fluids; taking regular exercise, and adopting the correct posture while on the toilet.

Bowel problems can also be treated with medications, enemas, pelvic floor exercises, or surgery. 

Sexual difficulties are commonly experienced by a range of people, and it is estimated that they affect about 50-90 per cent of all men with MS, and about half of all women. These figures may not be accurate because many people find that the topic is awkward or difficult to discuss with a healthcare professional.

MS may cause difficulties either directly, through erectile dysfunction in men or lack of arousal in women; or indirectly through a lack of stamina, incontinence, or emotional problems such as lower self esteem or feeling less attractive. 

There is support available, which may include talking therapies or medication to treat related conditions such as incontinence. 

If you would like some more information about the treatment of multiple sclerosis and nerves damage, please contact Mr Jonathan Hyam of Amethyst Radiotherapy. Further information is available about Gamma Knife surgery.