Pregnancy May Slow Progression of MS

Researchers have made some startling findings: according to a recent study, having a baby may slow down the damaging effects of multiple sclerosis (MS), a serious autoimmune disease.

Multiple Sclerosis is a disorder in which the body's own defense system attacks myelin, the protective fatty substance that surrounds nerve fibers in the central nervous system.  This causes a disruption to nerve signals traveling to and from the brain, which causes the numbness, walking problems, blurry vision and fatigue associated with MS. About 85 percent of those with MS start with a relapsing-remitting course, in which attacks are followed by partial or total recovery. More than half go on to develop a more progressive form of the disease, in which symptoms worsen over time and there are fewer, shorter periods without symptoms. Eventually, the disease can lead to loss of vision, and paralysis. Women are twice as likely to develop MS as men, though women tend to have less severe cases

Belgian researchers followed 330 women who had their first MS symptoms between ages 22 and 38 and published their study in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry. About three-quarters of the women in the study had children. Their research, says women who have given birth to at least one child were 34 percent less likely to have multiple sclerosis progress to a stage where they needed walking assistance (cane or brace) than women without children. 

While giving birth either before or after their symptoms started was a benefit, the women who had the most benefits were the ones who had a baby after the onset of symptoms.  They were 39 percent less likely to have their disease progress to a point where they had trouble walking.  Researchers concluded that women with Multiple Sclerosis who have children seem to have a more benign course than those without children.

Why does childbirth apparently slow the progress of MS? Patricia O'Looney, director of biomedical research for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society and quoted in the journal article says, "Having one or more children does seem to be beneficial, but, we don't know enough about the patient demographics to really draw some major conclusions."  The study didn't elaborate on other treatments the women might be receiving.

They developed two theories for why having children may slow MS progression.

  • One theory is that pregnancy "downregulated" or suppressed the immune system to prevent the mother's body from rejecting the fetus.  Suppressing the immune system with medications like interferon are common treatments for controlling MS. 
  • A second theory is that pregnancy causes estrogen levels to rise which may help protect women from MS by stimulating the mother's body to make myelin. 

Further research is being done to understand the benefits of pregnancy on MS.

Does this mean women with MS should have a baby as a treatment option for Multiple Sclerosis?  Not necessarily.  MS is a complicated disease and doctors and scientists still don't know as much as they should about why one person's disease is less aggressive than another.  Having a baby is a serious life decision and isn't the right choice for many women.  Women diagnosed with MS already considering pregnancy should talk to their physicians about how it may affect their health.