Is MS a terminal illness?

25 January 2013

Is MS a terminal illness? This is a question the Information Team at the MS Trust get asked quite often especially when someone is newly diagnosed. It makes sense to ask if you’ve just been told that you (or a loved one) have got MS. Perhaps you’ve never heard of MS or know very little about it. You’d want to know what it might mean for your life, wouldn’t you?

So what is a terminal illness? A medical definition would be “an illness that results in death within a fairly short time. There is no possibility of recovery”. Often death is expected within weeks or months, though sometimes longer.

So is MS a terminal illness? No, it isn’t classed as a terminal illness. It is a life long condition because there is no cure so far. It is a condition where treatments exist but where much better treatments are needed. However, there is an extremely rare kind of MS called fulminating MS or Marburg’s variant which is very aggressive and this type of MS is usually fatal within a few years but this is very much the exception.

Many people with MS live for just as long as the general population. Research has shown that those with more advanced MS are more at risk of potentially life threatening complications – such as respiratory or cardiovascular problems – that can result from reduced mobility, and this can affect life expectancy. This underlines the importance of watching out for any signs of infection, breathing difficulties or heart problems and seeing a health professional sooner rather than later.

So what can we all do to raise awareness of what MS is and also explain what it isn’t? Everyone’s approach is different. Some people will dress up in blue and run cake and information stands for MS Awareness week in April. Some people feel able to explain MS to friends and family and give them our publications, or send them to our website where they can get more information. It’s not an easy job to explain MS – it is a complex condition and it is a variable condition but it is not a terminal condition.

Remember that Ernest Hemingway famously said "life is a terminal illness" reminding us all that we are going to die of something at some point, so perhaps it’s a good idea to make the best of things now.