Life with MS

Your Health: The Total Picture

By MS Focus Staff; Reviewed by the MS Focus Medical Advisory Board

From a tightness in the chest known as the MS Hug to overwhelming fatigue, tingling in the feet, and pain, there seems to be no limit to the number of ways MS can affect the human body. While it might be tempting to blame every symptom on MS, however, medical experts caution against ignoring what could be warning signs of other conditions.

Being diagnosed with MS doesn’t protect you against other health problems that come with life and aging, such as heart disease, cancer and diabetes. Some health conditions, such as osteoporosis, are more likely in people with MS. And having any underlying health condition may make a secondary disease harder to find. 

Recent research sponsored by the Consortium of MS Centers, National Institutes of Health, and other government agencies, showed being in poor health complicated getting an MS diagnosis. It found that people who had pre-existing health problems, such as mental illness or obesity, experienced a delay of anywhere from one to 10 years in being diagnosed with MS. The study, which looked at the medical records of 8,983 people, found the more medical problems a person had, the more progressed their MS was at the time of diagnosis.

Building a Healthcare “Team”

In addition to the medical experts who monitor your MS, it is important to assemble a team to treat the “total you:” a primary care physician, dentist, eye doctor, and a gynecologist for women make up the foundation of preventive health care. You may also see someone for mental health, or consult with specialists aside from your neurologist.

The most important member of the group is you. Although MS cannot be prevented, many other health conditions are influenced by personal behavior. Eating a healthy and diverse diet and getting regular physical activity continue to be recommended by experts as two of the most important steps you can take for your health.

You are also in charge of making sure you receive preventive screenings that can spot potential health problems early, and responsible for educating yourself about common health concerns. Screenings for some things, such as your cholesterol level, are now recommended to start in your 20s. And while many of us assume our vaccination days are behind us once we’ve left school, some vaccines are recommended as we age, such as the herpes zoster vaccine for people over 60 or a tetanus-diphtheria vaccination, which is recommended every 10 years.

The following are the top 10 preventive health concerns of which you should be aware. Educate yourself. Advocate for yourself. Be well.

Obesity – Both you and your doctor should keep an eye on your weight and your body mass index (BMI). More than half of U.S. adults are either overweight or obese. Mobility issues and steroid munchies can complicate this issue if you have MS but there are health benefits to making sure the numbers on the scale stay low.

Sexually Transmitted Diseases – Chlamydia is the most common sexually transmitted disease, but most cases go undiagnosed, particularly in young women. Depending on your lifestyle, you may want to be tested for this and other STDs. Talk to your doctor about your risk and screening recommendations.

Cholesterol – There are two types of cholesterol – high-density lipoprotein, which is good, and low-density lipoprotein, which is bad. If you are 35 or older, you should already be having both of your levels checked regularly. Testing may start earlier if you smoke, have diabetes or high blood pressure, or if heart disease runs in your family. The American Heart Association’s website,, has a list of good questions to ask your doctor about cholesterol and your treatment options if it is high.

Blood Pressure – While you are reading up about heart health, make sure to get the basics on blood pressure as well. Yours should be checked at least every two years, though many health care workers will check at every office visit. High blood pressure can lead to health problems ranging from heart attack to kidney failure.

Diabetes – More than 23.6 million children and adults in the United States are diabetic, meaning that their body either does not produce or does not properly use insulin, according to the American Diabetes Association.

  • Type 1 diabetes, often diagnosed in childhood or early adulthood, is actually an autoimmune disease. Certain cells in the pancreas stop working because the body’s immune system has started attacking them.
  • Type 2 diabetes can be diagnosed at any age and may be linked with a higher BMI and less frequent activity. If you have high blood pressure or high cholesterol, your doctor may want to test for Type 2 diabetes.

Depression – Ready for a surprising fact? According to the National Institute of Mental Health, depression is the number one reason for disability in people aged 15 to 44. Depression is common in people with MS so make sure you are familiar with the warning signs.

Colorectal Health – Both men and women should start testing for colorectal cancer at age 50, or earlier for those with a family history, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Osteoporosis – Although most common in postmenopausal women, loss of bone density can occur in anyone. Usage of corticosteroids, including prednisone, may increase the risk of osteoporosis. Having MS is also a risk factor. Depending on your gender and medical history, your doctor may want to do regular tests to monitor your bone health.

Breast and Cervical Health – Women who are sexually active or who are between the ages of 21 and 65 should get a Pap smear to test for cervical cancer every one to three years. Mammograms most often begin at age 40, but you may want to consider more aggressive screening if there is a history of breast cancer in your family.

Prostate – Prostate cancer is the second most common type of cancer diagnosed, after skin cancer. It is also the second-leading cause of cancer death in men. Doctors do not always agree on their recommendations for screening, but most doctors and medical organizations agree that men should learn all they can about the benefits and limitations of early detection and treatment for prostate cancer, so that they can make their own informed decision. Talk to your doctor about when you should be tested.

(Last reviewed 7/2009)