Understanding Multiple Sclerosis and Depression


Linda Wasmer-Andrews

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Depression is a common problem in people of all ages and both sexes. But when you have multiple sclerosis (MS), it’s a particular concern.

Living with MS, you’ll undoubtedly have some days that are worse than others. If you feel upset or angry once in a while, that’s perfectly normal. But if you feel as if all the joy has permanently drained from your life, you may have depression and would benefit from treatment.

If you have MS, you are more likely to become clinically depressed than either healthy individuals or those with other chronic illnesses. It’s estimated that up to half of people with MS may develop depression at some point in their lifetime.

Fortunately, depression isn’t something you just have to live with. There are effective treatments available. Knowing the signs of depression and seeking help if needed can make all the difference in how much happiness you find today—and how much hope you feel for tomorrow.

What’s Depression? What’s Not?

It’s natural to go through a mourning period following a diagnosis of MS. There will be stressful challenges ahead, which can be trying on your emotions. Clinical depression is more than ordinary sadness or grief, however. The symptoms of depression are longer-lasting, grinding on for weeks or months.

Watch for these warning signs of depression:

  • Feeling sad, empty, or anxious for long periods of time

  • Losing interest in things you once enjoyed

  • Feeling restless or easily irritated

  • Feeling helpless, hopeless, or worthless

  • Losing your appetite or overeating

  • Being unable to sleep or sleeping too much

  • Thinking a lot about death or suicide

Some symptoms occur with both MS and depression, which can make them more severe. They include:

  • Feeling tired much of the time

  • Having trouble with concentration or memory

The Depression-MS Connection

On a psychological level, stress related to MS may contribute to depression in some people. On a physical level, MS damages the material that protects nerve fibers, including nerve fibers in your brain. If brain regions that regulate mood are affected, this damage might lead to depression. In addition, changes in your brain may interact with changes in the immune and endocrine (hormonal) systems to raise the depression risk in people with MS.

You might guess that those with the most severe cases of MS would be at the greatest risk for depression. Surprisingly, that doesn’t seem to be the case. It’s possible to become depressed even if you’re newly diagnosed with MS or have mild symptoms. But it’s also possible to stay depression-free if you’ve had MS a long time or developed severe disabilities.

Your stress-coping style, physiology, and genes may affect your chance of becoming depressed. But regardless of the cause, depression treatments can help.

Depression Treatments That Work

If you have MS and are depressed, getting treatment for depression may:

  • Lessen fatigue

  • Reduce problems with memory and concentration

  • Improve your mental outlook and quality of life

Two proven treatments for depression are antidepressant medications and counseling. Often, the best results come from a combination of both.
If you think you may be depressed, talk with your doctor or a mental health professional—and do it sooner rather than later. The longer you wait, the more problems you may have with depression down the road. If you’re having thoughts of suicide, seek help immediately.

Simple Strategies to Lift Your Mood

Along with getting professional help, these steps may help boost your mood:

  • Stay physically active. Ask your doctor to help you develop an exercise plan that’s tailored to your health and physical abilities.

  • Learn to manage stress. Set realistic goals for yourself. Practice relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing and meditation.

  • Connect with others. Depression can make you want to isolate yourself, but resist that urge. Spend time with family and friends.

  • Consider joining a support group for people with MS. To find support online, visit the National Multiple Sclerosis Society’s MS Connection.

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Medical Reviewers: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS Last Review Date: Jun 13, 2017

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Medical References

  1. A Large-Scale Study of Anxiety and Depression in People with Multiple Sclerosis: A Survey Via the Web Portal of the UK MS Register. Jones, KH, et al. PLOS ONE. 2012(7):art. e41910. ;
  2. Depression in Multiple Sclerosis: A Review of Assessment and Treatment Approaches in Adult and Pediatric Population. Skokou M. et al. ISRN Neurology.2012; art. 427102.;
  3. Depression. National Multiple Sclerosis Society, undated. (http://www.nationalmssociety.org/about-multiple-sclerosis/what-we-know-about-ms/symptoms/depression/...;
  4. Depression and Multiple Sclerosis. National Multiple Sclerosis Society. 2011. (http://www.nationalmssociety.org/download.aspx?id=53.);
  5. You Can...Overcome Depression. National Multiple Sclerosis Society, undated. (http://www.nationalmssociety.org/living-with-multiple-sclerosis/you-can/overcome-depression/index.as...;
  6.  Depression. National Institute of Mental Health. 2011. (http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/depression/complete-index.shtml.);

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