#MSCOVID19: assessing and managing relapses remotely

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Can we assess MS relapses remotely? 

Yes, I think we can. Most neurological assessments are based on history and examination. You definitely can take a history of new-onset neurological symptoms by telephone, or preferably using video consultation. I am currently using accuRx the most widely adopted NHS platform for remote consultations. It is remarkably easy to use and satisfaction levels are very high for both clinicians and patients. In addition, you can also do a brief or truncated neurological examination using a video link. I am beginning to ask some of my patients to complete a battery of online assessments (webEDSS, 9PHPT, T25W) and PROMS (MSIS-29) to document the impact of the relapse on their physical functioning.

Once you have documented a relapse the question arises should you treat the relapse with steroids? 

At the moment I am trying to avoid steroids for relapses. Why? In general, the benefits of steroids in the treatment of relapses are quite small. They essentially speed-up the recovery by about 2 weeks. At 6-months the level of recovery from a relapse, as assessed by EDSS, is the same whether or not you have steroids. When you tell patients this they often agree not to be treated, particularly when you mention the potential side effects of high-dose steroids, i.e. avascular necrosis of the hip, steroid psychosis, diabetes, hypertension, insomnia and infections.

Despite this, some patients still prefer to be treated. This raises the question of IV (intravenous) versus oral. There have been several studies showing that there is no difference between high-dose IV or oral steroids in terms of relapse outcome. Therefore, in the current COVID-19 environment, when we are trying to avoid patients having to travel and come to the hospital, oral steroids are the prefered route. The steroids can be dispensed via your general practitioner or through our pharmacy with courier delivery if you live locally (within London or in the home counties).

Before starting steroids it is good to get some basic things done to try and de-risk the adverse events. This includes a recent blood pressure; we don’t want to prescribe high-dose steroids to someone with uncontrolled hypertension. Nowadays most people have access to some form of home BP measurement device. 

If you have a history of recurrent urinary tract infections it is always advisable to have a urine dipstick done to make sure you don’t have an asymptomatic infection. Five days of steroids are sufficient to blunt your innate immune response, which has the potential to allow a bacterial urinary tract infection to become a systemic infection and to cause septicaemia. I learned a hard lesson early my MS career when I agreed for a patient to have his relapse treated by his GP without considering a UTI. The patient was admitted to ITU on day 4 of his course of oral steroids in septic shock and nearly died.  A lesson to take UTIs seriously.

It is also important to make sure the relapse is not a pseudo-relapse, which are often triggered by a UTIs in patients with more advanced MS. 

Not all patients have urine dipsticks at home, which is why you may have to attend your local GP practice or come to the hospital to get this done. Another solution is to purchase urine dipsticks online and do the test yourself. The latter is an example of taking control and self-managing your MS or UTI. 

Please be aware in the context of a UTI the dipsticks assess two main things; (1) urine nitrite levels and (2) the presence of esterase and enzyme that is produced by white blood cells or leukocytes. Please be aware that about a third of UTIs are caused by bacteria that don’t produce nitrate reductase, the enzyme that converts nitrates to nitrite, so your urine, even if you have a UTI, maybe negative for nitrites, however, it should be positive for white cell esterase if you have a significant infection.

In summary, to diagnose a probable UTI you need white cells and possibly nitrites to be positive on the dipstick. Other abnormalities that can be found with UTIs are a raised protein and red blood cells, which are also detected on most commercial dipsticks. However, positive protein and red blood cells in the absence of the white cells and nitrites are not indicative of a UTI and can be caused by other pathologies.

If you have doubt about interpreting the dipstick you can always take a photograph of it and send it to your MS nurse, GP or neurologist for interpretation. If you have a UTI it is advisable to get your urine cultured in a laboratory and to start a course of antibiotics. The antibiotics can be changed if the culture grows a bacteria that is resistant to the antibiotic you are on. To get a culture done you need to drop-off fresh urine to your GP that needs to be sent to the laboratory within two hours. Please note you will have to collect a prescription for antibiotics from your GP. I personally like you to start your antibiotics for at least 24 hours before starting steroids.

If you are overweight or obese and have a family history of diabetes it is also worthwhile getting your blood glucose checked. We don’t want to give high-dose steroids to someone who has uncontrolled diabetes. Blood glucose is checked using a finger prick test that can be done by your GP or anyone who has a glucose home testing kit. 

Will high-dose oral steroid put you at risk of COVID-19 or severe COVID-19? 

I don’t know the answer to this question. However, significant immunosuppression is only considered to occur with a prolonged course of steroids, i.e. longer than 3 weeks at a dose of greater than 20mg of prednisone per day or equivalent.  Therefore the level of immunosuppression with a short 5-day course of high-dose 500mg/day of methylprednisolone is relatively low. Although this is medical dogma there is good scientific evidence that high-dose steroids blunt innate immune responses, i.e. neutrophil and monocyte/macrophage responses to infection, which is why short-term steroids can cause UTIs to become systemic. The blunting of the innate immune response may be important in the early stages of COVID-19. Because of this, I am telling my patients who opt for steroid treatment to self-isolate for a period of 14 days after completing the 5-day course. The logic of this is simple; with a lack of evidence, it is better to be safe than sorry. 

In addition to 500mg/day of methylprednisolone for 5-days, I also prescribe lansoprazole 30mg daily for 14 days to protect you from steroid-induced gastritis. I am aware that not all neurologists prescribe gastric protection with high-dose steroids. Steroid-induced gastritis is not an uncommon problem and the last thing you need is an upper GI bleed that needs hospitalisation.

If you have diabetes and/or hypertension it is important to monitor your blood sugars levels and blood pressure whilst you are on steroids in case your medications need to be adjusted. 

The one side effect that worries me the most is steroid-induced hypomania, psychosis and depression. I have a handful of patients in my career that have had to be sectioned because of psychosis. It is important to be mindful of the mood-altering effects of steroids and if necessary seek help. I always warn partners or family members of the possibility of hypomania, psychosis and depression and that it is better to address these as soon as possible if they occur. The good news is that steroid-induced psychosis tends to respond to treatment relatively quickly.

Another side effect that is common is steroid-induced insomnia. If you have a history of this please ask for a short course of sedatives to help you sleep. The sedatives are only needed for 4 to 5 days and shouldn’t be taken for longer than this.

As you can see assessing and treating relapses remotely is possible, but on balance we should try and avoid using steroids.

If you any queries I will happy to ask them. I will also post this information to MS-Selfie, my COVID-19 and MS microsite.

About the author

Prof G

Professor of Neurology, Barts & The London. MS & Preventive Neurology thinker, blogger, runner, vegetable gardener, husband, father, cook and wine & food lover.

8 comments

Leave a Reply to Hannah Cancel reply

  • Hi Prof G, my sister has MS too like me.
    Last month she had a relapse of optic neuritis in one eye, was given a course of 5 day oral steroids like you mention above. Last week the optic neuritis has now moved into her other eye – so it’s in both eyes now. The doctor wouldn’t give a second course prob for reasons you discuss above.

    My question for this is can steroids actually cause relapses to get WORSE or a rebound type of activity?

    • Sorry to hear this, I’ll let profG answer this but if there were strong rebounds post-steroids there would be a massive literature on it.

      • Thanks. Perhaps it was the relapses natural progression and it was going to get worse anyway/the steroids can’t stop it in it’s tracks? I’ve never had them (apart from with ocrevus) and it was her first course so no experience with them.

    • To the best of my knowledge, high-dose steroids don’t cause relapses or rebound (different lesion). However, in the N.American optic neuritis trial, those treated with low-dose oral steroids but not high-dose steroids had a greater conversion rate to clinically-definite MS. We always thought this happened by chance as there is no biological explanation for this and it was not seen in other trials.

      In the current climate, I would not recommend a second course of treatment.

  • Wouldn’t be out of Multistix test strips at home, saves so much time if infection confirmed. Can be ordered from any local Pharmacy or online:
    https://www.chemistdirect.co.uk/siemens-multistix-gp/prd-j0
    Warning: GPs not always as proactive as neurologists re UTIs (‘mild cystitis’ is on the NHS list of avoiding antibiotics) so be prepared to explain 😉

    Prof G, lots of information covered here. Thanks for staying with us all 🙂

  • I felt unwell, put a morning MSU sample in a sterile container and did my own dipstick test on the remainder. It showed nitrates immediately. It was out of hours so I called 111. A locum came to my home repeated the dipstick test which showed as normal. The doctor believed my test and told me to take antibiotics and my sample was sent to the lab. The results three days later was ecoli and the I was on the correct drugs. I experienced a relapse of my MS following this UTI. My IV steroid treatment was administered only after a lab urine test on the day.

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