Can You Die from Multiple Sclerosis?
Last updated: February 2023
Content Note: This article describes death and suicide. If you or a loved one are struggling, consider reading our mental health resources page.
If you have been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS), you may wonder if you can die from the condition. It is hard to talk about the risk of dying due to a chronic illness. But knowing the facts can help relieve the fear and stress you may feel.
MS affects the central nervous system, which includes the brain, spinal cord, and nerves connecting the eyes and brain. In MS, the immune system attacks a protective layer around the nerves. This nerve damage interrupts signals between the brain and the rest of the body. It is these disrupted nerve signals that cause the symptoms of MS.1,2
Each person’s experience with MS is different. Symptoms are unpredictable and can change over time. Common MS symptoms include:2-4
- Problems with sight
- Muscle weakness
- Difficulty walking or balancing
- Bowel and bladder problems
- Numbness, tingling, and pain in the arms and legs
- Changes in the ability to think and concentrate
- Problems with swallowing and speaking
Doctors classify MS based on the pattern of symptoms. The four types of MS are:1,2
- Relapsing-remitting MS (RRMS) – Symptoms come and go.
- Secondary progressive MS (SPMS) – Symptoms may come and go at first but gradually worsen.
- Primary progressive MS (PPMS) – Symptoms worsen steadily after the first attack.
- Clinically isolated syndrome (CIS) – There has been 1 clinical attack of neurologic symptoms that does not meet the diagnostic criteria for MS but may become MS in the future.
For most people with MS, symptoms worsen slowly over many years. In a 2020 study, over 65 percent of people with MS reported mild or no symptoms.1,5
Can you die from MS?
Experts believe that people with MS die between 6 and 14 years earlier than the general healthy population. But death data is hard to estimate because doctors do not always report – or know – their patients' exact cause of death.1,6
It is also important to understand how to interpret data like this. Statistics help doctors estimate risks for large groups of people. This does not mean that every person with MS will die sooner than someone who does not have MS.6
Causes of death
Among people with MS, about one-half of all deaths are related to problems caused by MS (also known as complications). These problems include:1,6
- Respiratory infections
- Heart disease and stroke
Many treatment options are available to help treat or prevent these MS-related problems.
MS can affect the muscles that control your breathing, as well as your ability to swallow and cough. This can make it harder to cough when you are sick with a cold, keeping mucus and bacteria trapped in your airways. Respiratory infections can develop as a result of trapped mucus.7
If you are having a hard time coughing or feel congested, see your doctor. They can assess your symptoms and make a treatment plan for you. They may also recommend breathing exercises you can do to strengthen the muscles in your throat.7
MS can affect your balance and your ability to walk. This can make you more prone to tripping, falling, and hurting yourself. Falls in the bathroom lead to the most injuries.8
Make sure your home is free of cords, throw rugs, and anything that you can trip over. Consider using assistive devices such as a cane or walker to get around safely. You can also choose to modify your home by installing handrails, nightlights along hallways and stairs, and grab bars in the shower and beside the toilet.8
Heart disease and stroke
MS increases your risk of developing heart disease and stroke. The first thing you can do to protect yourself is to know the signs and symptoms of a heart attack and stroke.9
The signs of a heart attack are:9
- Chest pain
- Difficulty breathing for no apparent reason
The signs of a stroke are:9
- Trouble speaking
- Sudden confusion
- Inability to move your arm, leg, or face on one side of your body
If you are having any of these symptoms, call 9-1-1.
MS can cause mental and emotional health problems, including anxiety and depression. If you are experiencing depression, consider telling your nurse or doctor so you can get the support you need.10
If you are having thoughts of self-harm, get help. Call the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 9-8-8.10
In addition to improving survival, it is critical to help people live well with MS. There are effective treatments to help prevent MS relapses.11,12
Drugs called disease-modifying therapies (DMTs) may reduce the number of MS relapses. As of 2022, there are more than 20 DMTs approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to treat MS.1,11,13
A 2022 study showed that treating people with DMTs can delay the onset of disability by several years. This effect was greatest when treating people early in their illness. Experts do not yet know if DMTs can change how long people with MS will live.1,13
Reason for hope
If you are living with MS, there are reasons to be optimistic. There is still a lot to learn, but researchers are making exciting progress. Although there is not yet a cure for MS, there are ways to manage your symptoms and live life on your own terms.11,13
Do you ever have moments where you question your self worth because of your MS?