Debunking six myths about multiple sclerosis

Diagnosis multiple sclerosis and pills.

University of Chicago Medicine specializes in treating multiple sclerosis (MS), an autoimmune disease in which the myelin sheath around nerve cells is stripped away and, depending on where these nerve cells are located, causes neurological symptoms such as numbness, weakness or loss of vision.

Neurologists Daniel P. Kurz, Jr., MD, and Veronica Cipriani, MD, discuss and debunk six myths that persist about MS.

Myth: Multiple sclerosis only affects young, white women.

People of most ethnicities are affected by MS, including Latinos and Asians — not just young, white women, although white people of Northern European ancestry are at increased risk for MS. The most recent statistics show 1 million people in the U.S. are living with MS.

We do, however, know that MS is three times more common in women than men, even though men tend to have more aggressive or disabling MS. There have been studies over the years about whether taking hormones such as estradiol, the strongest type of estrogen in the body, reduces the relapse rate of MS. To date, none of these hormone treatments has panned out.

Myth: Multiple sclerosis does not affect African Americans.

Not only can African Americans develop MS, but studies suggest the highest incidence of MS occurs in African American women. This knowledge should definitely make us think about inclusion — MS clinical trials on disease-modifying medications have traditionally involved fewer than 10% of Black participants. Even though the rate of MS is high in African Americans, they’re not being sufficiently recruited into clinical trials, and we’re essentially extrapolating that medications work just as well in this group as for others. We’re working to change that, however. For instance, at UChicago Medicine, we’re looking at a humanized monoclonal antibody called ocrelizumab to see how it performs specifically in African Americans with MS.

Myth: People with multiple sclerosis have a much more difficult time getting pregnant and having children.

It used to be said that fertility decreased with MS, but we now know that’s not true. People with MS get pregnant and even have unplanned pregnancies. Ideally, patients should discuss with their doctor before getting pregnant because MS medications aren’t approved for use during pregnancy. You may need to pause or change your medications during pregnancy and for a period of time after giving birth.

Myth: Multiple sclerosis is not affected by pregnancy and menopause.

Especially in the second and third trimester, pregnancy tends to protect MS patients from flares. It’s believed this is due to changes in the immune system caused by hormones. This generally lasts up to three months after pregnancy, so having an appointment soon after giving birth to discuss a plan for getting back on your medications is important.

After menopause, MS tends to become more progressive than relapsing.

Myth: Patients with multiple sclerosis can’t breastfeed.

Breastfeeding is incredibly beneficial for your baby, and there’s no way your baby can ‘catch’ MS through breast milk. Research also suggests that breastfeeding can actually reduce your chance of relapsing. But the likelihood of having a flare-up increases in the weeks after giving birth, so it’s important to see your doctor during that period to discuss your plan for breastfeeding and what medications can be used during breastfeeding. Not all of them are safe because they can pass through the breast milk to your baby.

Myth: If you have multiple sclerosis, then your children will have multiple sclerosis, too.

Most children with a parent or parents who have MS will not develop MS later in life — but those children are at an increased risk for developing it. We still don’t fully understand what causes MS. It does have a genetic component, but there are many other environmental factors that play a role, including age, sex and vitamin D deficiency.

Veronica Cipriani, MD

Veronica Cipriani, MD

Veronica Cipriani, MD, is a neuroimmunologist who specializes in the treatment of multiple sclerosis and other demyelinating neurologic diseases such as neuromyelitis optica and anti-MOG encephalomyelitis.

Learn more about Dr. Cipriani
Daniel Kurz

Daniel P. Kurz, Jr., MD

Daniel P. Kurz, Jr., MD is a neuroimmunologist who specializes in the treatment of multiple sclerosis.

Learn more about Dr. Kurz

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