A woman practices her breathing exercises

Stress: The Great MS Antagonizer

Life has been a little extra stressful lately. I’m sure you can relate. Doesn’t matter if it’s being stuck at home due to disability or disease, a pet who keeps coughing up fur balls, worries about finances, shifting relationships, feeling misunderstood, losing a job, or just not feeling free to be able to do what you’d like, each bit of stress adds up.

Taking a stress inventory

My therapist once gave me a list including 43 life events (good or bad) that could cause some level of stress. Each event on the Holmes-Rahe Stress Inventory is assigned a numeric value. The idea is the add up the points representing each of the life stressors you have experienced during the past year. The resulting score can give you a rough idea as to your likelihood of experiencing stress-related health problems within the next year or two and indicate a need to increase stress reduction techniques to compensate.

My life stressors score was off the charts

Today I added up the points assigned to my current life stressors and those of the past year. My result was an astonishing 580 points. At first I thought that maybe I added incorrectly so I did it again. Nope, 580 points was my result. My score was practically "off the chart."

Here are examples of how the results might suggest the risk of stress affecting your health:

  • 150 points or less = a relatively low amount of life change and a low susceptibility to stress-induced health breakdown
  • 151 to 299 points = 50% chance of health breakdown in the next 2 years
  • 300 points or more = 80% chance of health breakdown in the next 2 years, according to the Holmes-Rahe statistical prediction model

The negative effect of stress on MS

Ask three different researchers or neurologists about the effects of stress on MS and you are likely to get three different answers. Stress and MS is an interesting topic and there have been several studies exploring their relationship. However, a 2015 systematic review of studies concluded that the effects of stress on MS remain unclear.1

The need for better research aside, as a patient living with MS for over 15 years, I say we cut to the chase. Stress can have negative effects on MS. I doubt that any person living with MS would beg to argue that it can’t. How those effects are measured and their impact determined is for the researchers to figure out.

Concerned with how stress affects my body

Right now I’m more concerned with how stress is affecting my body. A few days ago, I began to feel tightness in my right leg. I’ve felt this before and most of the time it’s just a little stiffness. It doesn’t really keep me from bending or straightening my leg and it doesn’t affect my mobility. But I do try to prevent spasticity from flaring up and creating a problem. I have three different medications on hand to help me manage the effects of spasticity and its related pain. I’ve also been known to take a really hot bath to purposefully turn my legs into jello just to find some relief when spasticity gets bad.

A knot in my calf muscle

Three days ago, I was uncomfortably and unsuccessfully trying to rub a knot out of my outer calf muscle. I could easily tell where the muscle tissue transitioned into connective tissue because that’s where everything was tender. I didn’t really say much about this to anybody around me; I just kept the pain to myself.

The pain continued to grow and expand to other areas

Two days ago, I mentioned to my husband that my leg was bothering me. This time the pain and stiffness had grown to include hamstring muscles, the lateral (outer) calf muscle, the back of my knee, and the bottom of my foot. My husband tried to help stretch my leg muscles in different ways. He also tried to rub the offending muscles but this approach was limited by the amount of significant pain I could tolerate. Everywhere he touched elicited intense facial grimaces and I had to hold back tears. Later in the day, I pulled out all my pharmaceuticals (prescription and over-the-counter) plus a bottle of BioFreeze to try to attack the pain from within.

Yesterday, the pain in my calf was so strong that I couldn’t even prop my leg up on a pillow for comfort. Only an attempt to lay it fully straight and try to relax would provide a little relief, in addition to more stretches, medication, and torturous massage.

Impacted my walking

This morning just when I woke up, I didn’t feel any specific pain in my leg. Yay. However, that didn’t last very long. As soon as I got up, the spasms came back and this time, they affected my walking. So today, I have that very slow, laboring, is-she-drunk, dragging of the offending leg, appearance to my walking. It’s not fun.

Deep breathing to reduce stress

So I venture to say that stress has antagonized my spasticity to rise up and sit me down on my butt. Spasticity is taking control and insisting that I do something about those stress levels. I pulled out my copy of the National MS Society’s brochure — Taming Stress in Multiple Sclerosis — and turned to page 17 where the discussion of deep breathing begins. You’d think that being a brass player, I would understand deep breathing. Actually I do, but to do so with a mindful purpose to reduce stress is different.

Meditation and clearing the mind

Next I expanded into “clearing my mind” and meditation. Here is where I started bawling like an injured toddler. I couldn’t hold back the tears. My body practically convulsed with sorrow, fear, and frustration; an entire year’s worth. It was an uncomfortable and frightening experience.

My pain was reduced

Afterward, I noticed something. My leg was less tense. The pain less severe. I could straighten my knee once again and walk through the house with better balance.

I don’t know what you might be going through right now, but please know that we in the MultipleSclerosis.net community are here for you and always willing to lend a helping hand.

Be well my friends,


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