INDIANAPOLIS – If you feel overwhelmed by the notion of managing multiple sclerosis patients who seek your guidance in navigating their pregnancy, you’re not alone.
Comprehensive management programs for pregnant MS patients currently do not exist, even within most dedicated MS centers and clinics, Dr. Maria K. Houtchens said at the annual meeting of the Consortium of Multiple Sclerosis Centers.
“Individual providers have an interest in this area, but there are no guidelines for most physicians or nurse practitioners to follow yet,” she said. “The level of care these patients receive varies dramatically, from one part of the country to another and from one provider to the next.”
An estimated 50% of all pregnancies in the United States and about 40% of all pregnancies worldwide are unplanned.
“I believe that women with MS should receive support and counseling from their MS specialist on issues about possible pregnancy,” said Dr. Houtchens, a neurologist who directs the Women’s Health Program at the Partners MS Center at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Boston. “I believe that we should all feel comfortable discussing with our patients the effects of pregnancy on their MS course and the reciprocal effect on pregnancy outcomes of their disease, the genetic risk of disease in their offspring, and optimal conception timing. We need to be able to talk to them freely about disease control before, during, and after pregnancy.”
Dr. Houtchens, one of the authors of a recent multinational systematic review on the topic noted that increasing numbers of MS patients with stable disease are choosing not to become pregnant (Obstet. Gynecol. 2014;124:1157-68). Others “want to get pregnant and feel cheated out of their life goal,” she said.
A large survey of female patients with MS from Canada found that more than three-quarters had not become pregnant since being diagnosed with the disease. The most common contributing factor across both MS-related and non–MS-related categories was completion of families prior to an MS diagnosis (53%). The top MS-related reasons that contributed to not having children were symptoms interfering with parenting, burdening the partner, and finances (Mult. Scler. 2013;19:351-8).
“It’s only in the last 2-3 decades that this issue has come to the forefront in caring for MS patients,” she said. “Previous to that, a lot of colleagues would discourage patients from becoming pregnant. Some of those attitudes persist to this day. There’s a perception of disapproval from health care providers on the part of the patient, and from their family and peers, and historic misconceptions. Our goal as physicians is to help women live lives to their fullest potential with a disease that can’t be cured. We should not discourage our patients from becoming pregnant.”
To optimize chances of conception, she recommended that oral contraceptives be stopped 2-3 months prior to conception attempts, and patients should be advised to transition to mechanical birth control. The optimal “fertility window” is a 6-day period, ending with the ovulation day. This window can be estimated based on duration of menstrual cycle, cervical mucus, and basal body temperature, as well as commercially available ovulation kits. Intercourse is most likely going to result in a pregnancy if attempted within a 3-day period, ending with the ovulation day. Moderate alcohol consumption, smoking, drug use, and vaginal lubricant use decrease the chance of contraception, she said.
Assisted reproductive technologies, if associated with failed pregnancy attempts, can lead to an increased relapse rate.
“If somebody really wants to have a child and are not able to conceive on their own, they may certainly consider ART; it’s all about education,” Dr. Houtchens said. “You just need to tell them what to expect and that they might have a higher risk of relapses if their attempt is unsuccessful.”
According to the medical literature, an MS patient’s prepregnancy annualized relapse rate predicts her risk for relapse during the postpartum period. “From that perspective, if you have the luxury of time, you ideally try to make sure that her disease is stabilized for the year before she becomes pregnant,” she said. “That means if she has an active MRI or has had a couple of attacks on whatever drug she’s taking, you talk to her about that, and you change the medication and repeat the MRI after the medication is changed to try to make sure that her disease is stable before she becomes pregnant. Hopefully that will help prevent postpartum attacks.”
Dr. Houtchens recommends standard preconception care including prenatal vitamins with 0.4 mg-1 mg of daily folate, smoking and alcohol cessation, improved sleep hygiene, and vitamin D3 supplementation. Low levels of vitamin D3 are associated with adverse pregnancy outcomes, and a poorer clinical and radiologic MS course. Low levels may also be associated with increased MS risk in offspring.