People who suffer from multiple sclerosis (MS) experience lower pain if they lead a healthy lifestyle of exercise, diet and no smoking, says a study published in Frontiers in Neurology.
“Our study found strong associations between lifestyle and pain in people with multiple sclerosis,” says Claudia Marck, one of the paper’s authors. “Smokers are more likely to experience pain, and those that do regular exercise seem less likely to experience pain. We also see strong links between pain and the prevalence of anxiety and depression.”
According to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, MS is an unpredictable, often disabling disease of the central nervous system that disrupts the flow of information within the brain, and between the brain and body. It often results in chronic pain and a lack of mobility.
In a search for ways to tackle the cause of MS, Marck and colleagues at the University of Melbourne, Australia, investigated how modifiable lifestyle factors are associated with pain in MS — a relationship that has not previously been examined in detail.
The team surveyed more than 2,500 people with multiple sclerosis from across the world on their symptoms, lifestyle and social demographics, then looked for patterns in the responses.
Smokers were found to be twice as likely to report substantial pain than non-smokers with MS.
“With smoking, studies have shown a detrimental feedback loop,” explains Marck. “In the long term, smoking has been reported to increase the likelihood of chronic pain. However, in the short term it dulls the pain, so this may motivate people with pain to smoke. Also, smokers, and especially those with depression, find it particularly hard to quit, as stopping smoking can initially increase pain sensitivity.”
As in previous studies, the analysis also showed that people with multiple sclerosis who engage in more physical activity are less likely to experience pain.
“This association can be interpreted in two ways,” says Marck. “As you might imagine, people are less likely to exercise if they are in pain. But on the other hand, exercise has been shown many times over to be beneficial in terms of pain symptoms. Increased physical activity can increase pain threshold and tolerance, and so reduce the experience of pain.”
In people with MS, the nerves lose their protective myelin coating. Previous studies have shown that exercise has neuroprotective and neuroregenerative effects. Marck adds, “This suggests that exercise can potentially reduce pain caused by damage to the nerves as it promotes brain and nerve health.”
Despite this evidence, Marck is quick to note, “People with MS and pain may be more likely to fear physical activity and avoid doing it as it may cause them more pain. In avoiding physical activity, it is likely that they are making their health outcomes worse in the long term.”
She concludes, “Maintaining a healthy lifestyle can be hard for us all. For those with MS it is even more important as they have a higher risk of having poorer health and developing other conditions such as cardiovascular problems and diabetes. For those who struggle to initiate or maintain healthy lifestyle behaviors, seeking the support of a health professional will be invaluable.”