By Stacie Prada
Managing MS relapses can mean different things to different people, and success varies immensely depending on how long you’ve had multiple sclerosis, the symptoms you experience, your level of physical ability, your disease course, and your expectations. When I think of managing relapses, I think of treating, avoiding and learning from them in order to slow disease progression and reduce the justifiable fear that comes each time one occurs.
- We can treat relapses to try to shorten the duration.
- We can try to avoid relapses with lifestyle and medication. This is an idealistic goal and may be possible, but it places a lot of blame or praise on the person with MS. It’s a pass-fail test that doesn’t necessarily correlate with how well a person manages their health.
- We can learn from relapses each time we have one to better understand how our body works.
- We can work to manage the fear that comes with relapses and disease progression. This part holds a lot of mystery and is sometimes the most difficult part.
When I was first diagnosed, I had no idea at any given moment if I was having a relapse or not. My scans made it clear I’d likely had MS for over a decade before diagnosis, and I’d had no idea I even had a health issue. My symptoms were just my life, and I had no comparison. It was scary and felt unpredictable. I didn’t know if there was anything I could to do reduce them, if I was doing things that made it worse, or if at any moment I was in the midst of a relapse.
Managing relapses at that time meant figuring out when I was having one and trying to stop it once it started. It took learning about MS symptoms and paying attention to how I felt. I compared how I felt to my MRI scans and neurologist’s assessment in order to know whether or not I was having an MS exacerbation. Steroid treatment was done to try to stop relapses. Because my biggest symptom was fatigue and I had no way to objectively measure it, I lived in a fairly constant state of fear and self-doubt. What got me through was a belief that I would get through this phase and learn what I needed to know to live with MS. I didn’t know how, but I trusted it would happen eventually.
At six years past diagnosis, I experienced an MS milestone. I achieved a point of confidence where I felt like I could finally tell if I was having an exacerbation or not. I knew how terrible I felt when I was having a relapse, and I knew how well I could feel when I wasn’t. I’d learned my body enough to know which symptoms were normal for me. I could distinguish between when the intensity and duration was likely due to existing damage from previous relapses and when it was likely new active MS activity.
I attribute this MS milestone to constant monitoring and self-assessment. After a relapse, I would consider what helped and what was hard about it. I’d speculate on what would have made it easier and how I can prepare for the next relapse. I’d think about how it felt, and I’d try to match up that feeling to my test results. When I felt poorly but wasn’t having a relapse, I’d use that information to learn what is normal for me. Knowing that helped me increase confidence and lessen my fears.
There’s so much to learn about MS, relapses and how your unique body behaves that has no prepared reference manual or shortcut around education and effort. It’s a moving target since our bodies are aging and old damage can cause new symptoms. There is no one proven or best way to manage health to avoid relapses. Monitoring your health, learning all you can, and trying things to see what works helps build self-confidence. Understanding how MS affects a body in general and yours specifically helps reduce the fear of the unknown. Reducing fear can make every aspect of living with MS more bearable.
People with MS do not have complete control over whether or not they have a relapse. If someday there is a determined cause, cure and 100% effective management regimen, then that might be possible. Until then, the only ways I think relapses can be managed are to tackle them when they happen, to reflect on them after they happen to try to find any patterns or contributors that you might be able to control, incorporate what helps, avoid what doesn’t, and to try to make the fear manageable when they do happen.
*Stacie Prada was diagnosed with RRMS in 2008 at the age of 38. Her blog, “Keep Doing What You’re Doing” is a compilation of inspiration, exploration, and practical tips for living with Multiple Sclerosis while living a full, productive, and healthy life with a positive perspective. It includes musings on things that help her adapt, cope and rejoice in this adventure on earth. Please visit her at http://stacieprada.blogspot.com/