Despite many doctors suggesting stress plays no part in the development and course of MS, there is a large and coherent medical literature showing that stress can precipitate MS and trigger relapses.
This latest study from preventive medicine researchers in Chicago is the first to examine MRIs of PwMS and correlate stressful life events with appearance of lesions on MRI.
As part of a study on stress management therapy in 121 PwMS, the researchers asked participants about stressful life events, categorizing them as negative or positive. This was in recognition of the fact that many stresses are perceived by the individual as positive, particularly where the person has some control over the event and it is meaningful.
For instance breaking up with a partner can be seen as positive or negative depending on the type of relationship and who instigated the break up; a court case can be seen as positive or negative depending on the outcome, and so on.
For those of us who have long seen a close link between major negative stressful life events and worsening Multiple Sclerosis disease activity, the results come as no surprise.
The researchers found that major negative stressful life events resulted in 77% more new MRI lesions over the subsequent 4-9 weeks, and 57% more new or enlarging T2 lesions (the so-called 'black holes' that are closely associated with worsening disability).
Perhaps the surprising part of the study was that positive stressful life events had a protective effect; those with a positive event had 47% fewer new contrast-enhancing lesions on MRI.
This study is important not only because it reinforces the causative effect of negative stressful life events on worsening MS disease activity, but also because it highlights the fact that stressful events can be both positive and negative, and that positive stressful events actually provide some protection.
As we have said at OMS, the goal of the OMS Recovery Program is to get healthy and to be able to fully engage with life again, with all its ups and downs. It is important as part of this to get really involved with the things that you are passionate about, even if they are stressful.
Equally, it is important to make changes that are necessary to improve your life, even if a particular change involves a lot of stress; resigning from an unpleasant job, ending a damaging relationship, and so on, would fall into this category. This positive stress can be very protective, and not only improve your life, but the course of the illness as well.
Read the full study here.