10 Things You Don't Know About MS Treatments

If there’s a silver lining to being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS) in the past few years, it’s that your odds of continuing to live an active, full life are surprisingly good. Treatments have come a long way since the first disease-modifying therapy (DMT) entered the market in 1993. In the 27 years since then, we’ve learned a lot about the chronic condition. In case you missed a memo or two, here’s what you might not know about treating MS.

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New Meds Are Evolution, Not Revolution

While a lot of DMTs have recently entered the market, the meds aren’t necessarily new in the sense of a breakthrough treatment approach. “Every other year, we have a new MS medication that’s being approved,” says Daniel Ontaneda, M.D., a neurologist at Cleveland Clinic’s Mellen Center for Multiple Sclerosis in Ohio. But these medications, he says, actually “work on the same mechanism of action, they just target better tolerability or refine the mechanism to make sure that they work better in a specific MS patient.”

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DMTs Are Still Game-Changers for MS

When it comes to treatment, the fact remains that the advent of DMTs has forever changed the way we think about MS. Prior to DMTs that halt disease progression, wheelchair life was common among patients, says Kathleen Costello, a nurse practitioner and adjunct assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore. Not so in 2020, although “there’s a vast heterogeneity to this disease and a wide spectrum of disability for people living with MS,” she says.

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The Cost of Meds Is Shocking

DMTs are not cheap. The median price for the medication was $88,000 in 2019—and that amount is expected to rise in 2020. With prices so high and health insurance not always fully covering the drugs, cost can be a real impediment to people getting the treatment they need. A 2020 survey by the National Multiple Sclerosis Society found that 40% of MS patients altered or stopped taking their DMT because of the high cost. That’s a problem, since consistency is essential for the drugs to work effectively.

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Financial Help Is Available

Many people don’t realize they have options if their insurance company denies coverage for certain MS treatments. If you’ve been turned down for a new drug therapy, talk with your doctor about ways to defray costs, says Dr. Ontaneda. For instance, some pharma companies making DMTs offer patient assistance programs. Nonprofit organizations may also help cover costs. Don’t let your insurance company take you off your game: Delayed treatment can result in disease progression.

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Timing Matters

To maximize the benefits of your meds, you need to take them exactly as directed by your doctor. That might mean setting a reminder in your cellphone calendar, putting stickies on your fridge, or asking your partner to ping you so you don’t forget. “These drugs are based on a certain dosing regime, and if someone is not following it, we really have no idea if the drugs are going to work as well,” says Dr. Ontaneda. “Adherence is key to optimizing the drug's effectiveness.”

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Side Effects Differ by DMT

Here’s something you might not know if you’ve been on the same disease-modifying therapy for a while—the side effects of your DMT might be totally different than those for another MS medication. “Side effects vary heavily by different medication types,” Dr. Ontaneda says. The good news is, if the adverse effects of your current treatment are getting to hard to handle, another drug may be able to offer the same symptom relief, minus the uncomfortable sideshow.

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Your Friend's Meds Might Not Work for You

Maybe you know someone on a certain DMT, and they’re doing really well. That’s great! But there’s no guarantee that what works for them will work for you, says Costello. For reasons docs still don't totally understand, some meds work better for certain people. “That’s the importance of having more than one treatment with different mechanisms of action, different routes of administration, and different side effects,” Costello says. “Each person’s individual situation can potentially be met by one of these drugs.”

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DMTs Aren't Effective for All MS Types

Turns out, DMTs are limited in whom they can benefit: They’re generally only effective for people with relapsing-remitting MS (RRMS), leaving those who have progressive MS with few treatment options. “People with primary-progressive MS are not having relapses, so they aren't able to participate in a clinical trial for these types of therapies,” says Costello.

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Still No Cure, But Lots of Hope

If you have MS, you’re well-aware that there is no cure… yet. But there is plenty of reason to feel optimistic about the future. Researchers are coming at the disease from all angles, including investigations into stimulating re-growth of the myelin sheath (protective tissue that surrounds your nerves). “Ultimately, the goal is to literally prevent this disease from happening,” says Costello. “Until then, it’s very important to continue to advocate for additional research to better understand what happens when MS progresses.”

Erin L. Boyle
Meet Our Writer
Erin L. Boyle

Erin L. Boyle, the senior editor at HealthCentral from 2016-2018, is an award-winning freelance medical writer and editor with more than 15 years’ experience. She’s traveled the world for a decade to bring the latest in medical research to doctors. Health writing is also personal for her: she has several autoimmune diseases and migraines with aura, which she writes about for HealthCentral. Learn more about her at erinlynnboyle.com. Follow her on Twitter @ErinLBoyle.