World MS Day: Understanding Gastrointestinal Symptoms

By Cristina Mestre

Most people know that multiple sclerosis (MS) is a disorder of the central nervous system that affects skeletal muscle function. But lesser known are the gastrointestinal symptoms associated with the disorder.

Today marks World MS Day 2013, and according to the Multiple Sclerosis International Federation it is one of the most common neurological disorders and cause of disabilities in young adults, affecting about 2 million people worldwide. Most are diagnosed in their 20s or early 30s, and the disease affects women more than men. There is no known cure.

The gastrointestinal tract requires a healthy neurological system to function optimally. Therefore, many neurologic conditions are associated with gastrointestinal problems due to disruption of these neural pathways. MS, for example, has been highly associated with problems in gastrointestinal function that require muscle coordination, such as swallowing and defecating.

However, MS may be also associated with gastrointestinal problems that do not require muscle coordination. To investigate this possibility, UPMC’s David J. Levinthal, M.D., Ph.D., and KlausBielefeldt, M.D., Ph.D., recently conducted a large, comprehensive survey of MS patients that used questionnaires to assess the prevalence of gastrointestinal symptoms and syndromes. 

Their findings confirmed a high prevalence of gastrointestinal symptoms in nearly two-thirds of MS patients, including problems with swallowing and defecation.  However, they also discovered that nearly one-third of MS patients suffer from indigestion.  Furthermore, many MS patients met the criteria for irritable bowel syndrome.

Due to the high prevalence of a variety of gastrointestinal symptoms and syndromes in MS patients, the doctors suggest that routine assessments for these symptoms should be conducted as part of regular patient treatment.