Stress has been shown to be an aggravating factor in MS but not a causal factor. More than 30 years ago, in conjunction with the McGill department of psychiatry in Montreal, we found that major life stress (such as death or serious illness in a child or other family member, marital discord, and loss of employment) was three to four times more common in MS patients than in medical patients who had been referred to psychiatrists for psychiatric consultation and care. Moreover, this stress was temporarily associated with relapses. We also found that major life stress was two to three times more common in the medical patients requiring psychiatric care than those not in need of psychiatric help.
Our finding that there is an association between stressful life events and attacks of MS has been confirmed and extended in a number of studies in the United States and Canada. The most impressive was a San Francisco study showing that MS patients have new brain lesions detected in MRI brain scans more frequently when confronted with acute stress. A surprising finding was that "hassles," those more minor irritations that just won't go away, were also associated with an increased risk of new brain lesions.
Certainly, there is a need for further scientific study of the biological consequences of stress and autoimmune disease. Such studies could lead to useful therapeutic interventions.
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