MS Society: Link between smoking and multiple sclerosis is 'clearer than ever'

The link between smoking and multiple sclerosis (MS) is “clearer than ever”, the MS Society has announced. Not only are people who smoke more likely to develop MS, smoking can also speed up how fast people with MS become disabled.

Ahead of October’s annual ‘Stoptober’ campaign, an independent research review by the MS Society shows smoking can:

  • Make MS more active
  • Worsen and speed up the accumulation of disability
  • Speed up the transition from relapsing to secondary progressive MS.

One study found that quitting smoking could delay the onset of secondary progressive MS – a form of the condition that has no treatment – by as much as eight years.

“Looking at all the evidence it’s clear smoking can make MS worse, and harder for the brain to fight the condition. Over 100,000 people in the UK have MS and, in light of this review, we are encouraging and supporting every one of them who smokes to quit – it could make a difference to how their MS progresses”, says Dr Susan Kohlhaas, Director of Research at the MS Society.

“It’s not just people who have MS who need to be aware of this though, as people who smoke are more likely to develop MS than people who don’t. It can be hard to give up, but Stoptober is a great time to quit because of the support of thousands of others doing the same thing.”

MS Society research also found most people with MS don’t realise the connection with smoking – despite the fact NICE advises healthcare professionals to tell people as soon as they’re diagnosed. In a recent qualitative study the overwhelming majority of people with MS (89%) did not know anything about the risks of smoking and MS.

Dr Waqar Rashid, consultant neurologist at St George’s Hospital in London, said:

MS can be painful and unpredictable, and is often stressful to manage. Some people with MS believe smoking helps them manage stress, and healthcare professionals can be reluctant to take that ally away from someone who’s just been diagnosed. But knowing that continuing to smoke might impact the disease and its progression could make a radical difference to some people. MS specialists must make sure these conversations are happening as soon as is appropriate, and make it a routine part of their MS consultations.”

Research suggests smoking can cause further damage to the myelin sheath – the protective layer that surrounds our nerves, which is affected in people with MS. This prevents messages getting through properly, causing common symptoms like vision, mobility, and cognitive problems.

Research also shows an association between smoking and the number and/or size of brain lesions appearing in MRI scans. This increased damage could be the reason people with MS have less ability to fight the condition, or experience worse symptoms earlier. Smoking can also impact how effective treatments are, meaning more relapses.

Tamar Packford, 43, is a management accountant from Blackpool. She was diagnosed with relapsing MS four years ago:

I’ve been smoking about 20 cigarettes a day since I was 16, but had no idea it could be making my condition worse. Obviously everyone knows cigarettes are bad for you, but I think very few people realise it might affect MS symptoms, or make MS progress faster. It’s frightening but, if quitting could keep me out a wheelchair longer, I’m thinking very differently now and definitely considering giving up with some support from the NHS and Stoptober.”

James Styles, 34, lives in Kent with his wife Katie. He has relapsing MS:

I always suspected a link between smoking and MS, but never heard it from a medical professional. Just a couple of weeks before I was diagnosed I had a really weird experience where I smoked a cigarette and the whole of my bottom half went numb. I was with my brother at the time, and just collapsed to the ground in front of him. I went straight into hospital and gave up smoking there and then. Not everyone feels the effects on MS with each cigarette, but I certainly did. It’s happened again since then but less severely, when I’ve walked past large groups of smokers.

Since giving up I feel generally healthier, but most importantly some of the MS symptoms I struggled with for years have improved.”

This Stoptober, the MS Society is inviting everyone affected by MS who smokes to join thousands of others trying to quit, and offering support, advice, and new resources to help. For more information, support and encouragement visit mssociety.org.uk/smoking-and-ms

For anyone who is worried about this information or has questions about smoking and MS, please call our free helpline on 0808 800 8000.

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