Relapses: Not Always Easy to Define or Diagnose

With a majority of MS patients diagnosed with relapsing-remitting MS, the idea of defining and recognizing the signs of relapse becomes very important. This topic can cause both MS patients and neurologists to debate the issue, and some of the lines can be blurry, to say the least. The official definition of a relapse is as follows:

“During a relapse, inflammation is occurring along the nerves and the myelin, causing patients to have a temporary worsening or recurrence of existing symptoms and/or the appearance of new symptoms. This can range from a few days in duration to a few months, followed by a complete or partial recovery (remission). Acute physical symptoms and neurological signs must be present for at least 24 to 48 hours, without any signs of infection or fever, before the treating physician may consider this type of flare-up to be a true relapse.” (MSAA, 2016.)

The new physical signs and symptoms must be separated from a previous relapse by at least one month. As you can see, this definition leaves a great deal of room for interpretation, and every neurologist responds to relapses in very different ways.

Some neurologists treat each relapse with steroids, and do not perform MRIs each time. Steroids are anti-inflammatory medications, almost like “Mega Ibuprofen.” Steroids are very effective at calming the inflammation that causes MS symptoms, but they come with a load of side effects that always need to be considered and weighed. Treatment can be done with IV steroids (Solu-Medrol,) or with oral steroids such as Prednisone. Other neurologists insist on performing MRIs before ordering steroids. Some neurologists prefer to save steroids for only the most severe relapses such as weakness and vision loss, and do not use them for sensory symptoms such as numbness and tingling. It is very much a matter of opinion, and there truly is no “right or wrong” answer in this area.

My own neurologist does not perform MRIs for my relapses, because he does not believe that there is a clinical correlation between the MRI and clinical symptoms. A clean MRI does not necessarily indicate that we are not experiencing relapse, and vice versa. It is also possible that we may be experiencing a pseudoexacerbation. Pseudoexacerbations are temporary increases in symptoms caused by external factors such as heat, which go away after a short period of cooling off. These can also be the result of infections and fever.

I have had RRMS for almost 7 years, and in that time I have experienced very active disease. On a daily basis, I experience new and varying symptoms, ranging from buzzing/tingling/numbness, to burning/pain/spasm, to weakness/vision loss/bladder issues/cognitive issues. These symptoms come and go very unpredictably, and it is truly maddening. The one thing I have learned is that I can’t allow myself to panic if I experience something new, because most often these symptoms with leave as quickly as they appear, within a few hours. However, if they do persist beyond 24-48 hours, make sure you contact your neurologist and get advice, because if there is something you can do, you should! I am always grateful to get my neurologist’s advice in these situations, because it can be very difficult to assess our own symptoms in an unbiased way. Don’t ever hesitate to ask for advice in this area, because it can be very confusing for even the most experienced MS patient!

*Meagan Freeman was diagnosed with RRMS in 2009, at the age of 34, in the midst of her graduate education. She is a Family Nurse Practitioner in Northern California, and is raising her 6 children (ranging from 6–17 years of age) with her husband, Wayne. She has been involved in healthcare since the age of 19, working as an Emergency Medical Technician, an Emergency Room RN, and now a Nurse Practitioner. Writing has always been her passion, and she is now able to spend more time blogging and raising MS awareness. She guest blogs for Race to Erase MS, Modern Day MS, and now MSAA. Please visit her at: http://www.motherhoodandmultiplesclerosis.com.

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About MSAA

As a national nonprofit organization, the Multiple Sclerosis Association of America is a leading resource for the entire MS community, improving lives today through vital services and support. MSAA provides free programs and services, such as: a toll-free Helpline; award-winning publications including a magazine, The Motivator; website featuring educational videos and research updates; S.E.A.R.C.H.™ program to assist the MS community with learning about different treatment choices; a mobile phone app, My MS Manager™; a resource database, My MS Resource Locator; equipment distribution ranging from grab bars to wheelchairs; cooling accessories for heat-sensitive individuals; educational events and activities; MRI funding and insurance advocacy; and more. For additional information, please visit http://www.mymsaa.org or call (800) 532-7667.

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