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Are depression and anxiety early signs of MS?

More than 6,800 MS patients were studied in B.C. for the research.
If MS is recognized earlier, then treatment could begin sooner, says a neurology professor.

Researchers in B.C. believe they’ve discovered an early sign of multiple sclerosis (MS). 

A new study from the University of British Columbia found people are nearly twice as likely to experience mental illness in the years leading up to the onset of the disease, and those who suffer from anxiety and depression may 'be part of a prodromal phase of MS.'

MS is an autoimmune disorder where the immune system attacks the protective sheath that covers nerve fibres. This disorder disrupts communication to and from the brain. 

Dr. Helen Tremlett, professor of neurology at UBC, says if MS is recognized earlier then treatment could begin sooner. 

"That has tremendous potential to slow disease progression and improve quality of life for people,” says Tremlett. 

Anxiety and depression may be part of a prodromal phase of MS, which is a set of preliminary symptoms and clues that arise before classic MS symptoms. 

Researchers studied the health records of 6,863 people in B.C. in the five years before the patients developed classical, medically recognized signs of MS. The group was compared to 31,865 people without MS. 

The findings revealed that MS patients were experiencing mental illness at nearly twice the rate of the general population. 

Anibal Chertcoff, who conducted the study as a postdoctoral fellow, says they are seeing higher and higher rates of psychiatric conditions that peak in the final year before MS onset. 

In each of the five years leading up to disease onset, the gap widened. Health-care usage for psychiatric visits, prescriptions and hospitalization was also consistently higher among MS patients. 

“While we’re not suggesting that these conditions alone can be a predictor of MS, they may be one piece of the MS prodrome puzzle and a potential signal when combined with other factors,” said Chertcoff. 

Tremlett says the medical system thought MS started with someone having vision problems. 

“We’ve come to understand there is a whole period preceding those events where the disease presents itself in more indirect ways,” she said. 

Tremlett's previous research points to other symptoms tied to the MS prodrome: fatigue, sleep disorders, irritable bowel syndrome, anemia and pain.

MS is often challenging for medical professionals because its symptoms are varied and easily mistaken for other conditions.