Smokers are more likely to develop multiple sclerosis and become disabled, a charity says.
The MS Society has reviewed research into the link between smoking and the incurable condition affecting the brain and spinal cord, and says the link is ‘clearer than ever’.
Quitting the habit could delay the onset of untreatable secondary progressive MS by as much as eight years, one study revealed.
Some 89 per cent of MS sufferers do not realise the risk, a recent poll found, despite official guidance advising healthcare professionals to tell patients as soon as they are diagnosed.
Dr Susan Kohlhaas, from the charity, said: ‘It’s clear smoking can make MS worse and harder for the brain to fight the condition. 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.’
Smokers are more likely to develop multiple sclerosis and become disabled (stock)
Smoking can cause further damage to the myelin sheath, a protective layer around the nerves, which is affected in MS patients. This affects vision, mobility and cognitive functions.
WHAT IS MULTIPLE SCLEROSIS?
Multiple sclerosis, known as MS, is a condition in which the immune system attacks the body and causes nerve damage to the brain and spinal cord.
It is an incurable, lifelong condition which ranges from producing fairly mild symptoms to causing severe disability.
Around 100,000 people are thought to be diagnosed with MS in the UK, and around 2.3 million worldwide.
It is more than twice as common in women as it is in men and is usually diagnosed in their 20s and 30s.
Symptoms include fatigue, difficulty walking, vision problems, bladder problems, numbness or tingling, muscle stiffness and spasms, problems with balance and co-ordination, and problems with thinking, learning and planning.
The majority of sufferers will have episodes of symptoms which go away and come back, while some have ones which get gradually worse over time.
Symptoms can be managed with medication and therapy, but the condition shortens the average life expectancy by around five to 10 years.
Source: NHS Choices
There are also links between smoking and brain lesions. The increase in damage could explain why MS patients are less able to fight it or suffer worse symptoms at an earlier stage.
Smoking can also affect how effective treatments are, so people suffer more relapses.
Dr Waqar Rashid, from St George’s Hospital in south London, said: ‘Knowing that continuing to smoke might impact the disease could make a radical difference to some people.’
Ahead of October’s annual Stoptober campaign, The MS Society is warning that smoking can make MS more active, and worsen and speed up the accumulation of disability.
Dr Kohlhaas said: ‘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.
‘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.’
Management accountant Tamar Packford, 43, from Blackpool, was diagnosed with relapsing MS four years ago.
Tamar Packford, 43, has been smoking around 20 cigarettes a day since she was 16. She was diagnosed with relapsing multiple sclerosis four years ago and had no idea of the link
She said: ‘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 (of) a wheelchair longer, I’m thinking very differently now and definitely considering giving up with some support from the NHS and Stoptober.’
Dr Rashid added: ‘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.’