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Support for MS symptoms ‘must be offered at diagnosis’

Non-pharmaceutical help from clinicians should not be delayed, new research recommends

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Clinicians should offer non-pharmaceutical help for symptoms like pain, fatigue, depression or anxiety at the time of diagnosis for patients with multiple sclerosis (MS), rather than wait, new research has recommended. 

A new study has shown that clinically-significant levels of pain,  experienced by 50 per cent of patients; fatigue for 60 per cent; depression for 47 per cent; and anxiety for 39 per cent were regularly seen for patients within the first year after diagnosis. 

“The take home was that we found these symptoms, pain, fatigue, depression and anxiety quite prevalent at the point of diagnosis,” said Dr Kevin Alschuler, principal investigator of the UW Medicine study. 

“We want to address this immediately, rather than five or 10 years down the road.”

The findings also indicated that prompt screening was necessary if quality of life was to be maintained and optimised.

Globally, more than 2.3million people have been diagnosed with MS, a disease for which there is no cure and results from the body’s immune system attacking the brain and spinal cord, damaging the myelin which disrupts signals to and from the brain. 

In a further study from UW Medicine, the quality of life for MS patients was explored immediately after, at two months, three months, six months, nine months and then a year after diagnosis. 

The results of the study showed that, on average, quality of life was largely stable throughout the year – a finding that surprised researchers.

“Patients who are newly diagnosed have to deal with the emotional impact of the diagnosis, as well as numerous tests and treatment decision-making,” noted Dr Alschuler, who was lead author on the study.

“Results showed that, on average, if they came in and were doing great at diagnosis, they had a tendency to stay that way throughout the first year.

“If they were struggling, they also tended to stay that way.”

Many times, patients had been dealing with the symptoms years before a formal diagnosis, both noted.

“Through symptom self-management, including cognitive behavioral therapy, we help patients become empowered with coping skills, especially in the areas of fatigue and pain,” said Dr Dawn Ehde, a co-author on the quality of life study.

“We teach them how to use strategies such as relaxation or mindfulness meditation techniques, as well as how to pace themselves to decrease fatigue and better manage stress. 

“Patients who learn these skills often find that not only do their pain and fatigue go down, they are able to do more of what is important to them despite their MS.”

The next step for the team is to explore options for early interventions to help newly diagnosed patients.

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