Unfair as it seems, MS doesn’t keep other diseases away. It’s possible to have MS and “something else” at the same time. A person with two diagnoses has extra considerations in managing both diseases, whether the something else is a life-threatening illness such as cancer, or a chronic condition such as osteoarthritis or allergies.
Just identifying a second health issue can be challenging. Financial, transportation, and mobility issues can make getting to routine checkups difficult.
Time can also be an obstacle. The time you spend managing your MS might make you less likely to take care of checkups and other screenings. The Society has a list of the regular tests and checkups all adults living with MS should have (pdf).
People with MS and their health-care providers might tend to see new symptoms as MS related. For example, if a person with MS has numbness in one arm, the physician might assume it’s an exacerbation. However, a disc in the cervical spine could be the cause. Hand numbness could be carpal tunnel and foot pain could be plantar fasciitis. Both you and your health-care provider need to keep an open mind.
Managing a dual diagnosis
Make your primary care physician an integrated part of your health-care team. General practitioners have experience with a broad array of medical issues. They are trained in follow-up care. They are ideally positioned to monitor all the medications a person is taking and to watch out for potentially harmful interactions. This is especially important as insurance companies increasingly require use of mail-order pharmacies for many medications.
These steps can also help you manage.
Write it down. Write down the names, addresses, and phone numbers of all your physicians and bring a written list of all your medications to every appointment.
Ask questions. Ask your doctor about any and all medications prescribed. You need to know what you’re taking and for what reasons.
Have your specialists communicate with each other. If you’re seeing a neurologist for MS and an endocrinologist for diabetes, they might need to coordinate treatment at times. For example, steroids can cause an increase in blood sugar, so if you’re given steroids for an exacerbation, your endocrinologist needs to know.
Talk to your pharmacist. Your pharmacist is another essential part of your health-care team. Use just one pharmacist if possible—or one mail-order firm for regular medications and one local store for everything else. If you’re prescribed a new medication, ask if it will interact with any others you take, including over-the-counter remedies, vitamins, and herbal supplements.
Educate yourself. Learn what your symptoms mean. Bowel changes, vision problems, fatigue, mood changes, or urinary problems can result from MS and from some other condition. It’s important to know what symptoms signal “call right away” and what symptoms might wait. Should a new symptom turn up, don’t let yourself or your caregiver assume it’s “just MS.” Something else could be happening.
Develop healthy habits. Regular exercise and good nutrition are not only the best way to manage many existing chronic conditions, but the best defense against a range of preventable diseases, such as high blood pressure, diabetes, or osteoporosis.
The biggest danger for someone with a dual diagnosis is thinking that two diseases are more than a person can handle. That kind of despair can lead to neglecting overall health or failing to stick with the best therapies. People who feel overwhelmed need support. They, or their caregivers and family members, need to speak up. It’s the first essential step to finding peers, counselors, resources, and outlets for painful feelings.
If you have MS and something else, it’s a continual battle. But it is not a battle that must be waged all alone.