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Multiple Sclerosis

Why talk about multiple sclerosis (MS) during pregnancy? MS is more prevalent in women of childbearing age than in any other group. Pregnancy doesn't cause MS, but because MS targets women between the ages of 20 and 50, some women happen to be pregnant when their MS is diagnosed.

What it is. Multiple sclerosis is an autoimmune disease that affects the brain and spinal cord. People with MS experience a range of symptoms from mild (numbness in the limbs, muscle weakness) to severe (paralysis, tremors, and vision loss). Although it is not a fatal disease, it is chronic, so people who have it will have it for the rest of their lives. Symptoms may come and go for months or more.

Unless symptoms are severe, MS can be difficult to diagnose, particularly during pregnancy. Some of the symptoms of MS--numbness, problems with bladder and bowel function, fatigue, mood swings, inability to concentrate, and forgetfulness--are similar to some of the ordinary side effects of pregnancy.

Treatment. Scientists have discovered several medications that help modify the natural course of MS. These medications are most effective if taken early in the disease. If you experience any MS-type symptoms, tell your doctor.

How MS affects a pregnancy. Here's some good news for women who start pregnancy with MS or develop it during their pregnancy: Studies show that MS does not harm a pregnancy. In fact, pregnancy appears to have a protective effect on some women with MS. During pregnancy--particularly in the 2nd and 3rd trimesters--women with MS tend to experience fewer flare-ups than when they are not pregnant.

A woman with MS generally needs no special care during labor or delivery. After a woman with MS gives birth, flare-ups may be more common, rising in the first 3 to 6 months postpartum. However, long-term studies have found that women with MS who have babies suffer no more MS-related disability than those who don't give birth.

Originally published in You & Your Baby: Pregnancy.

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