By participating in weekly stress management therapy sessions, multiple sclerosis patients can prevent the development of new brain lesions, which often precede symptoms.
This is the finding of a Northwestern Medicine study that included 121 patients ages 18 and older from across the U.S.
MS is a nervous system disease that affects the spinal cord and brain. Symptoms include visual disturbances, numbness, muscle weakness, balance problems and pain.
"This is the first time counseling or psychotherapy has been shown to affect the development of new lesions," said David Mohr, Ph.D., principal investigator of the study and professor of preventive medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.
The study used the "stress and mood management program" outlined in Mohr's book by the same name. Participants attended 16 therapy sessions in 24 weeks. Their lesions were measured by magnetic resonance imaging.
Two-thirds of the patients in the study were female, which reflects national statistics. According to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, women are two to three times more likely than men to become MS victims.
Participating in the study helped her learn how to handle stress, said Bernadette Fa, who recently moved from Chicago to Walnut Creek, Calif.
"We all have stress. That's life," she said. "But therapy teaches you to take a step back from a stressful situation and ask yourself what's bothering you about it. That helps us not blow little things out of proportion."
Just being diagnosed with MS is stressful, added Fa.
"But you learn to accept that you will have relapses," she said. "When they happen, you'll have to sweat them out. And, you'll have to decide which drugs and treatments are for you. One was so stressful to me to even consider, I felt better after deciding against it."
Mohr observed two types of brain lesions in the study participants — gadolinium-enhancing and T2. Patients with stress management therapy had fewer of each. Lesion formation occurred whether or not the patients took MS drugs.
For most patients, said Mohr, stress management therapy can work in conjunction with medication, but not replace it.
After the participants' therapy ended, lesion formation resumed. This suggests the need for continued therapy, said Mohr, although many patients do not have the time or money for it. Greater availability of tele-therapy (by computer or telephone) will help because it costs less than traditional office visits, said Mohr.
"You lose your job because of the disease, then you have no health insurance and no money," said Helen Moonin, of Glenview, who was diagnosed with MS in 1991. "That's common among MS patients."
Moonin, who uses her computer to link with other MS patients seeking help, said many doctors still tell their patients that stress does not affect the disease.
"But we know it does," she said. "When my parents died, I was worse. After I was in a car accident, I was worse."
She learned to keep symptoms in check by doing her own version of stress management therapy, said Moonin.
"I get massages, do yoga every week and ride horses. I can ride but need help getting on and off the horse, so I go to a stable where they help me," she said.
Positive mental attitude also helps, added Moonin. "Don't be an 'MSer.' Too many people, when they get MS, define themselves as 'I have MS.' It's an ugly disease, but you can't let the disease be you. Instead of dwelling on what you can't do, you can dwell on what you can do," she said.
Fa also has her own stress-busting regime, despite juggling roles as a mother and dentist, plus teaching dentistry. "I make time for deep-breathing and stretching exercises, I walk regularly and I'm addicted to massage therapy," she said. "It all makes a difference. I've been without symptoms since 2010."
Fa said she learned through the study that having someone to talk to is part of stress management.
"I'm blessed that I have a supportive husband who tells me to get out there and exercise even if I don't want to and a Bible-study group where I can share my worries," she said.
You are not alone, Fa tells other MS patients.
"If not your family or friends, then there are people for you at the (National Multiple Sclerosis Society) and at local support groups," she said. "If you don't have a support system, make one. You'll need it."