Multiple sclerosis affects every individual differently, from age of diagnosis and types and of symptoms to rate of the disease’s progression. However, MS affects about three times as many women as men and has different implications for each sex.
Here are some ways in which the disease can specifically affect a woman’s health.
Women with MS need not be worried about their chances of becoming pregnant, as MS does not affect fertility. However, because certain medications are unsafe during pregnancy, it is important that women who may become or might be pregnant speak with their doctor. A physician might, for instance, recommend stopping treatment and waiting at least three months before trying to conceive.
Research has determined that MS relapse rates decrease during pregnancy, but the reasons are unknown. Findings have also shown, however, that the risk of relapses rises in the first three months after a baby is born. Pregnancy can affect some MS symptoms—such as fatigue, back pain and bladder and bowel problems—but experts have found that these effects are not long-term and don’t affect the progression of the disease.
When considering having children, women might want to take into consideration the role of genetics in MS. MS is not inherited, but scientists have found a link between genetics and MS.
A woman’s period may heighten MS symptoms, including weakness, balance, fatigue and depression. Sometimes heightened symptoms can be a result of MS medications, but these side effects usually disappear within a year of starting a medication. Women with MS who experience prolonged difficulties during their period may want to discuss with their doctor the option of stopping it by taking oral contraceptives or intrauterine devices.
For women with MS who are going through or who have already gone through menopause, certain symptoms may also feel worse, such as bowel and bladder problems. However, menopause has not been shown to affect progression of the disease or frequency of relapses. Menopausal women are most likely safe taking hormone replacement therapy since all types have been shown to be safe for women with MS, but women should discuss treatment options with their doctors first.
MS often affects sexual health in women and can lead to loss of libido, reduced sensation, dryness and trouble achieving orgasm. The reason for this is that sexual functions are directly linked to spinal cord connections and nerve pathways in the central nervous system. There are no medications that can help with sexual dysfunction, but women can work with their doctors and their partners to find ways to deal with sexual issues.
There are many lubricants available over-the-counter, which can help alleviate dryness. For women who experience difficulty with orgasms, an array of devices can be used to provide additional stimulation. The MS Society in the UK offers a range of tools women with MS can use to help manage sexual problems. Communication between partners is especially important, as both parties may be able to explore options together and discuss with a medical professional how to maintain a healthy sex life.
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"Women's Health." MS Society. MS Society UK, n.d. Web. 10 Feb. 2014. http://www.mssociety.org.uk/what-is-ms/womens-health.
"Sexual Dysfunction." National MS Society. National MS Society, n.d. Web. 10 Feb. 2014. http://www.nationalmssociety.org/about-multiple-sclerosis/what-we-know-about-ms/symptoms/sexual-dysfunction/index.aspx.