From the Professor’s Desk: gaining power over pain

September 19, 2017

back pain ms

Substantial pain is a major problem for many with MS. Affecting between 30-85% of people with MS, it can be headache, back or musculoskeletal pain, neuropathic pain, or may accompany spasms or spasticity. The impacts are profound and wide ranging. MS-related pain can affect daily activities, employment, quality of life, and can contribute to problems with sleep, fatigue, mood, and cognition. Overall, along with fatigue, many people with MS describe it as the worst aspect of the illness.

While reaching for pain medication may feel like the only thing we can do, a new study from our team suggests this is not the case. The latest HOLISM paper, published in Frontiers of Neurology, explored associations between substantial pain, demographic, disease, and modifiable lifestyle factors in people with MS.

Lead author, Dr Claudia Marck says, “Our study identified important associations between the experience of substantial pain and modifiable lifestyle risk factors”. In this study of 2,362 people with MS internationally, substantial pain was defined as pain of moderate to severe intensity that interfered at least moderately with work/household or enjoyment of life in the previous four weeks.

Important findings were that current smokers and those experiencing obesity were twice as likely as others to experience substantial pain. By contrast, people adopting a healthy diet, engaging in moderate or high physical activity, or consuming moderate levels of alcohol had significantly less substantial pain.

The really interesting thing about these findings is that these same modifiable lifestyle risk factors are recognised as important in preventing progression in MS, and are seen as targets for reducing pain syndromes in other groups of people without MS.

Disentangling the complex interplay between lifestyle, symptoms and other illnesses that can contribute to pain is tricky. “Pain is a multifactorial symptom, with clear physical correlation in people with MS with CNS demyelination and degeneration, but also contributed to by psychosocial factors such as personality, depression, anxiety, and comorbid conditions such as fatigue”, explains Dr Marck.

It is the interplay between these factors that determines the perception of pain. In this study, fatigue, depression, anxiety, and reduced mental health were strongly associated with worse pain.

The authors from the Neuroepidemiology Unit  at The University of Melbourne hope to shed more light on these relationships by examining data collected as part of their ongoing follow up research of these people over several years. But until then, any pain prevention plan for people with MS should include information about adopting a healthier lifestyle. The OMS Recovery Program fits the bill perfectly!

Associate Professor Tracey Weiland

More from the NEU:


 Australasians in the HOLISM study healthier than those in North America or Europe

From the Professor’s Desk: A healthy life is a happy life!

4 thoughts on ‘From the Professor’s Desk: gaining power over pain

  1. Hello Advisors,

    MS patient diagnosed 18 years but suffered for 24 years diagnosed with Optic neuritis.
    Can you please give me a procedure to try and reduce pain being whist laying on my temples. The pressure pain has always been found during my life, and has only been identified during adult life, as causing discomfort as a child with my preventative method of banging my head on my pillow to try and get to sleep. I do take amitriptyline for this but would rather try an alternative?

    Kind Regards,


    • Hi Edzart, thanks for getting in touch and sorry to hear that you have been experiencing so much pain. Unfortunately we aren’t in a position to be giving professional medical advice over the internet. This issue sounds quite specific and would be best discussed with your doctor or another health practitioner if possible. Regards, OMS team

  2. Do you have any insight into OMS affecting Trigeminal Neuralgia. This is by far the worse aspect for having MS. Been on the program for 3 years.

  3. Hi Tania – sorry to hear you are having so much trouble with pain. Our OMS research has not drilled down into specific pain conditions but instead focused on “substantial pain” that has an impact on people’s activities. We know that there are certain lifestyle behaviours (eg smoking) associated with worse pain but we need to remember that pain is highly complex with both physical and psychological components. It would seem sensible to me that in addition to the OMS program that you also try to learn some psychological methods for managing pain.

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