Conference Coverage

In MS, the challenges for women are unique



The one constant in multiple sclerosis (MS) is its lack of constancy. “As our lives are dynamic and change over time, MS is also dynamic and changes over time.” This is especially the case in women, noted Mitzi Joi Williams, MD.

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About three in four people with MS are female – about 750,000 in the United States. And the risk and incidence may be highest in African American women.

In a presentation about the unique needs of women with MS, Dr. Williams, an assistant professor of internal medicine at the Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta, offered these tips at the annual meeting of the Consortium of Multiple Sclerosis Centers.

Pay attention to sexual dysfunction

Patients with MS often are ashamed to talk about sexual dysfunction, Dr. Williams said, but it is on many minds. “If I have a program on intimacy in MS, people are out the door.”

She urged colleagues to understand that MS can affect sexuality through three routes: primary, secondary, and tertiary dysfunction.

In primary sexual dysfunction, brain and spinal lesions directly related to MS can cause problems such as lack of sensation or abnormal sensations, decreased libido, vaginal dryness, and difficult orgasm.

Secondary sexual dysfunction refers to problems caused by symptoms of MS such as fatigue, which can worsen as the day progresses and affect nighttime intimacy, she said. Bladder dysfunction is another sensitive area in sexuality, with patients – especially women – “concerned that they will lose control of their bladder or they have already lost control.”

Cognitive dysfunction also can disrupt sexual function. “It is important to focus, and certain things cannot happen if you do not. If you are not able to focus and concentrate, it can affect interest,” Dr. Williams said.

Dr. Mitzi Williams of Morehouse College, Atlanta

Dr. Mitzi Williams

Additionally, medications can improve some symptoms while making others worse. For example, a drug may relieve spasticity but boost fatigue. “We have to walk this tightrope,” she said. “But if we are not asking our patients, they may not volunteer this information.”

Finally, she said, MS can spark tertiary sexual dysfunction – poor body image, depression, anxiety, and disruptive changes in familial roles. For example, one partner may become a caregiver, and “it is hard to go from caregiving to sexy time.”

“It is something we have to acknowledge and find ways to deal with,” Dr. Williams said.

To address these issues, she pointed to strategies for symptomatic relief and disease-modifying therapy (DMT) and pinpointed several treatment options.

  • Fatigue – stimulants, diet, exercise.
  • Spasticity – muscle relaxants, exercise.
  • Bladder dysfunction – fluid restriction, medication.
  • Paresthesia – antidepressants, anticonvulsants.
  • Numbness – vibrators, devices to increase stimulation.

Sexual therapy, couples therapy, and pelvic floor physical therapy also can be helpful.

Be aware of special needs during prepregnancy and pregnancy

“MS itself does not have a lot of effects on fertility, pregnancy, or pregnancy outcomes,” Dr. Williams said. However, “medications cause concern about how we manage pregnancy and fertility.”

In vitro fertilization may increase the risk of relapse, she added, and patients on dimethyl fumarate who experience vomiting or diarrhea may not be able to properly absorb oral contraceptives.

Women with MS may not need to go off DMT when they are trying to conceive, she said. “If patients have very aggressive disease, they may need to be on DMT through conception, through the first trimester, and even the entire pregnancy to prevent long-term disability.”

What about pregnancy itself? “An MS diagnosis alone does not mean that a pregnancy is high risk,” she said. “There are not necessarily additional tests and ultrasounds that are recommended for our patients based on MS diagnosis alone.”

Treatment discontinuation may be warranted during pregnancy, when MS generally improves. However, some MS symptoms – fatigue, bladder dysfunction, and balance – may increase. Corticosteroids can be appropriate if relapses occur during pregnancy.

Menopause and MS symptoms may overlap

Symptoms such as hot flashes, mood changes, sleep disturbance, bladder dysfunction, and decreased energy may be signs of MS, or they could indicate menopause, Dr. Williams said. “Sometimes patients come in and they are getting worse, and we look into it and discover they are premenopausal.”

A decline in estrogen during menopause may worsen MS symptoms, she added, and hormone therapy may be appropriate. A phase 2 study found a benefit in menopausal patients with MS for estriol in conjunction with a DMT, but more studies are needed.

Dr. Williams reported no relevant financial disclosures.

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