You see me once a year for 15 minutes, you look at my MRI report and blood results, you ask me a lot of questions, you examine me and then you tell me that everything is fine. At my last visit, you said my MS was stable, you mentioned to me that I was NEDA, because I had had no relapses, no new lesions on my MRI and my EDSS was static at 3.0.
I have now looked up and read about NEDA (no evident disease activity) and I disagree with your assessment. I am clearly getting worse. The Christmas before last I remember going for a 5-mile walk with my family after lunch and managed it fine. When I tried the same walk last Christmas I had to turn back after a mile because my right leg was dragging.
I also have other problems that you didn’t pick up on during the consultation. I now have to get up 2 or 3 times at night to pass urine. My memory is much worse than it was last year. My head feels foggy all the time as if I have a permanent mild hangover. I now avoid any social occasions with colleagues after work. The truth is I am too tired to at the end of the day to do anything else than get home. I feel exhausted most of the time. I have stopped gardening.
I think I have developed secondary progressive MS. Do you agree? Would it be possible to see you sooner to discuss this? Is there anything you can do about my deterioration in functioning?
Does this story sound familiar?
At first glance, it is easy to say this person has SPMS. But do they?
Based on the definition of SPMS it seems likely, i.e. objective worsening of function for at least 6-12 months independent of relapse activity. Based on the latter it seems Patient Y is not having relapses. As for the objective worsening of function the interpretation is in the eye of the beholder. As far as the neurologist is concerned the patient is not deteriorating because the EDSS is stable. In comparison, the patient has documented, albeit rather crudely, a drop if in functioning. Who do you believe?
The scenario illustrates what will happen when MSers begin to self-monitor and prepare for clinic appointments in advance, i.e. they will potentially be self-diagnosing secondary progressive or worsening MS.
However, I want you to take a step back and ask could the deterioration be due to something else, something reversible? If it is due to something else it may be treatable and potentially reversible.
Does this patient have any reversible comorbidities that could be responsible for the deterioration? Smoking, hypertension, diabetes, metabolic syndrome, obesity, underactive or overactive thyroid function, renal, liver, heart or lung disease? If a woman, is she menopausal? What about mental health issues; depression and anxiety? Is this patient drinking too much alcohol? Is the patient malnourished? They may be eating a diet of toast and tea.
Is this patient sleeping well? Getting-up 2 or 3 times a night to pass urine means their sleep hygiene is very poor. Just improving this patient’s bladder problems will have a major impact on their daytime fatigue and work performance.
What about a chronic infection? Could this patient have a low-grade urinary tract infection? What about their oral health; could they have gingivitis or periodontitis? Sinusitis?
Is this patient exercising enough? I suspect not. The drop off in the walking distance could be deconditioning, i.e. losing fitness because of lack of exercise. In this particular patient, I suspect this, however, is unlikely because deconditioning is unlikely to result in a dragging leg on walking a mile.
What medication is this patient on? Are they are on an anti-spastic medication or anticholinergics for their bladder problems? Both these class of drugs affect cognition and may explain the memory loss and brain fog. I have commented on baclofen being particularly problematic in the past.
How well is patient Y? Patient Y seems to have become socially isolated and withdrawing from having social interactions with their work colleagues. The patient has stopped gardening, which helps improve mental health. What about the home environment? Is patient Y’s relationship with the family stable, etc? What are this patient’s finances like? Are they in debt? Are they struggling economically?
Could this patient have smouldering MS? Does this patient need an MRI of the spine and a lumbar puncture to measure CSF neurofilament levels? We know that brain MRI will not pick-up all disease activity. Does this patient need to start a DMT or have a DMT switched and escalated? I would be very interested to know how this patient’s cognitive function is and whether or not they have a swiss cheese brain (lots of black holes) and brain volume loss. Having this information makes a diagnosis of SPMS and/or smouldering MS more likely.
How old is patient Y? If they are over the age of 50 we may be seeing early ageing.
Making a diagnosis of SPMS is not simple and most neurologists would prefer not to do it. However, if we are to improve the lives of our patients we need to take a holistic approach to the management of MS. Clinical practice must not be a box-ticking exercise. We need to provide our patients with the tools to self-monitor, self-diagnose and self-manage. We need them to become partners on a life-long MS journey that will result in better outcomes and happier and more content MSers and HCPs.
To reiterate the philosophy of marginal gains “if you break down everything we can think of that goes into improving MS outcomes, and then improving it by 1%, we will get a significant increase when we put them all together”. This case vignette illustrates this very well.
I hope this post motivates you to start self-monitoring and to start preparing for your consultations with your HCP. You need to have a list of questions to ask. Don’t let your neurologist or HCP fob you off. You know yourself better than they do; please don’t forget this.