Researchers have been trying to identify the exact triggers of multiple sclerosis (MS), the debilitating condition that occurs when the immune system attacks the protective sheath of the brain and the spinal cord.

Although the exact cause of the autoimmune disease is still not known, experts suggest that making certain lifestyle modifications such as eating a healthy diet, cutting down stress and getting regular exercise can reduce the chances of multiple sclerosis relapses.

A new study by researchers in Michigan has confirmed the role of stressors in causing MS flare-ups. It suggests stressful events occurring both in childhood and adulthood can worsen disability in patients.

MS affects more than one million people in the U.S. and more than 2.8 million people worldwide. Previous studies have found the condition is caused partly by inherited genes and partly by outside factors such as lack of sunlight, smoking, teenage obesity and viral infections.

"MS is the leading cause of non-traumatic disability among young adults, and additional research is needed to identify these external drivers of disability that can be addressed or prevented, including stress, to improve functional outcomes," co-author Tiffany Braley said explaining the significance of the latest study.

The research team evaluated data from more than 700 people with MS and found that the stressors in different stages of life such as poverty, abuse and divorce can contribute to relapse of MS. The findings of the study were published in the journal Brain and Behavior.

"Adverse Childhood Experiences, which we call ACEs, and other childhood stressors could impact immune, inflammatory and behavioral processes throughout life, and reduce resilience to adult stress," first author Carri Polick said.

Researchers believe the findings can help initiate improvements in the current treatment methods for MS, which now mainly focus on managing the symptoms and avoiding the triggers.

"This knowledge is needed to inform MS research as well as clinical care. Referrals to resources, such as mental health or substance use support could help reduce the impact of stress and enhance wellbeing," Braley added.

Facts about multiple sclerosis:

  • MS can be considered an invisible illness as most often the symptoms of the disease might not be immediately apparent
  • Studies show people living in higher latitudes, or areas of colder climate have higher rates of MS
  • Pregnancy may ease the symptoms of MS
  • Women are four times more likely to develop the condition than men
  • MS is often misdiagnosed as the symptoms are nonspecific and may vary with each case
Living With MS
People with multiple sclerosis and their caregivers are fighting for a cure. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock