This week, 17-21 June 2019, is Loneliness Awareness Week. Introduced by The Marmalade Trust three years ago, the theme aims to remove the stigma around loneliness and combat people feeling this way. In order to do this, we need to encourage people to talk about it more.
Research has found loneliness to be an unpleasant, deeply personal experience and emotionally distressing. Loneliness can be for a longer duration perhaps when a change has occurred, or chronic if it is for more than two years. However, it doesn’t necessarily need to be for an extended period of time, it can be brief or occasional. A 2017 report even found that loneliness was as harmful as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
Specific research into loneliness and MS has been conducted by the MS Society, which shows that out of 869 respondents, 60% said they felt lonely due to being affected by multiple sclerosis (MS). Unfortunately, this figure is up from an average of 50% of people that are affected by any disability generally. So what can we do to combat this, and how do we strive towards pushing this statistic down?
The MS Society found that 78% of people affected by MS see ‘meeting other people affected by MS’ as the most significant aspect of their local group in reducing feelings of loneliness. Such research suggests that strong local community groups are important to people with MS, so we need to continuously build on this.
Alongside the unique information that The Marmalade Trust produce, they have also assembled an interactive map so everyone can see where community events are happening nationally. This can be a great way to meet new people. To see what events are near you, visit marmaladetrust.org/law/#Interactivemap.
Understandably, not everyone will have events listed in their area. This is where we can help. Our helpline team here at MS-UK are available to talk to you, even if it’s just a chat. We would like to remove the stigma around loneliness, and it’s okay to say ‘I’ve been lonely’. We believe that nobody should face MS alone and our helpline staff are here to support you no matter what the issue is.
In 2018, our helpline supported over a thousand people and you can reach out to us knowing you will receive unbiased and professional support. The MS-UK Helpline is open from 9am-5pm, Monday to Friday. We are available to you on the telephone or online through our live web chat or email – we will support you in a way that’s right for you.
The Marmalade Trust has created a basic guide about what you can do in relation to loneliness, or what you can do for someone who you think is experiencing it. You can find this guide online at marmaladetrust.org/what-we-do/marmalades-3-step-process-to-feeling-less-lonely/.
When we looking at our new strategy, we were told that there was simply not enough support available to the MS community to overcome isolation and loneliness. We are now running a survey to find out more about these issues.
You can share your own thoughts today in our online survey at www.surveymonkey.com/r/MSUKLoneliness.
Men experience MS differently to women. Here we take a look at those differences
Most of the information available about multiple sclerosis (MS) makes a point of telling us that more women than men are affected by the condition. Statistics claim that MS is at least two to three times more common in women than in men and more recent studies have suggested that the female to male ratio may be as high as 4:1, as the number of women diagnosed with MS increases. But how does the predominantly female related condition affect men?
Ageing with MS
Let’s start by looking at how men with MS age. In a Canadian study of 743 men and women, both sexes were found to have similar average age, years of education, years since MS diagnosis and level of disability. The study said that men were less likely to live alone or have additional health problems, however, older men with MS had a lower perception of their health. They didn’t cope as well with setbacks, rated lower in the participation of household activities such as housework, they were less likely to socialise outside of the home and they also had a poorer diet. Researchers suggested men’s struggle to cope as they grow older with MS could be due to the loss of work. Work brings routine and a reason to socialise with other people on a daily basis. The ratio of male to female respondents for this study was 166:577 respectively, the fact that so few men responded confirms the findings of this study but also isn’t necessarily a fair representation because there were so few responses from men.
MS can affect mental health in a number of ways. Struggling to deal with the diagnosis, and changes in condition or symptoms can all have an impact. A survey commissioned by the Mental Health Foundation and published back in 2016 found that not only are men far less likely than women to seek professional support, they are also less likely to disclose a mental health problem to friends and family.
In a study that looked at how depression, high blood pressure and other chronic conditions may be common at MS diagnosis, men with MS had disproportionately higher levels of depression and anxiety than women with MS.
However, research shows that men are less likely to disclose or seek help with mental health issues. For MSers the first port of call should be their MS nurse. They are experienced in dealing with all MS related issues and can make referrals to get the help and support needed.
Fertility and sex
Though men with MS might experience physical difficulties surrounding sex, studies have shown that the count and quality of sperm are not affected, which means MS will not have a negative impact on an unborn child. However, sexual problems, such as the inability to sustain an erection or delayed ejaculation can have a significant impact on a sexual relationship and the ability to start a family. But fear not, there are some solutions. The biggest barrier is talking about it. Don’t be shy about discussing it with your GP or MS nurse, they understand the importance of the matter and will be able to recommend treatment options. There are a few drugs that can help with erection problems for example.
MS Clinical Nurse Practitioner Miranda Olding says: “Men with MS qualify for the medications Viagra, Cialis, Levitra and Spedra on the NHS, and if they are not suitable, ask to be referred to the local erectile dysfunction clinic, where different options like implants, creams, injections and vacuum pumps can be discussed. Pumps can also be bought privately and work well for many men.”
There are currently no drugs to help with ejaculation issues, “the NHS Choices website mentions that Baclofen can cause delayed ejaculation and that amantadine, bupropion and yohimbine are suggested when this problem is caused by selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs),” explains Miranda. “Pseudoephedrine has also shown promise but hasn't been licensed for this use. Interestingly, amantadine is also used for fatigue in MS.”
A lot can also be said for taking the pressure off, relaxing and just having a good time. Try not to focus on what can’t be done and focus more on what can, especially for your partner.
Men have around 10 times more testosterone in their blood than women. It is a hormone which affects sexual development. Both males and females produce the hormone, but those levels fluctuate throughout life. Before puberty testosterone levels in males are low and they start to increase during puberty, levels peak at around the age of 40 and then slowly start to decrease as they age. This is also a similar age that many men are diagnosed with MS, which may or may not be a coincidence. More research is needed to conclude these findings, but one small study of 10 men with relapsing remitting MS, who applied 100mg testosterone gel to the tops of their arms, once a day, for 12 months showed an improvement in cognitive performance and slowing brain atrophy. However, this didn’t change the number or quality of lesions on MRI.
Progressive MS in Men
Studies have shown that when it comes to primary progressive multiple sclerosis (PPMS) the ratio of men to women evens up. In the largest study of hundreds of men and women with PPMS, which spanned decades, researchers found that equal numbers of men and women had the condition under the age of 30. Fewer men than women were diagnosed with PPMS over the age of 50, but usually, symptoms were worse in men than women. However, other studies have shown that symptoms were just as severe and got worse just as fast for men as for women.
More investigation into how men and women are affected by MS is needed in order to personalise both treatment and MS management.
This extract was taken from issue 110 of New Pathways magazine, your MS magazine of choice. To subscribe click here.
This week is national Volunteers' Week and we are celebrating by saying a big thank you to our amazing volunteers. Last year over 130 people volunteered with MS-UK in all sorts of ways. Together you donated 500 hours of time to MS-UK and helped us be here for people affected by multiple sclerosis (MS). We literally couldn't do it without you, thank you!
This year we have lots of opportunities to get involved. You could join our fantastic cheer squad and support our fundraisers to make it over the finish line at a national event. Or you could come into our offices in Essex and get stuck in behind the scenes. We are also currently looking for volunteer counsellors to help us offer telephone counselling to more people who may need it across the UK.
Whatever you decide to do, we'll be here every step of the way to support you. You can share your skills and develop new ones, gain some experience working with a national charity and we provide you with a full induction and ongoing support.
In the mean time, you can find out more about Volunteers' Week across the country on the NCVO website. If you already support MS-UK, don't forget to download our Twibbon to show the world you are part of #TeamPurple.
Best wishes and happy volunteering!
Sarah Wright, General Manager
I wanted to invite you to complete our survey which launched today about loneliness and isolation.
Last year we consulted with the MS community to inform the development of our new strategy. The most talked about gap for people affected by multiple sclerosis (MS) across the UK was appropriate support to tackle loneliness and isolation. We were told that there was simply not enough support to overcome the barriers contributing toward their isolation and not enough available to help them feel a part of something, connected to the world and less lonely.
We are now beginning to look at this area and we would like to understand this issue a bit more. The voices of people affected by multiple sclerosis inform all our work and this insight is incredibly valuable as it brings us perspectives that no one else can give. I hope you will take five minutes to complete this short survey and help us stay on course to provide people affected by MS not only with what they want from us, but crucially, how they want it.
The topics of loneliness and isolation can be difficult to deal with at times, so if you would like any support at all please get in touch with our helpline. You can email the helpline, call us on 0800 783 0518 or connect with us online.
Thank you so much for your contribution,
Head of Services
'Before I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS), I was very keen on sport and was always very active participating in sports teams, such as when I joined Colchester Ladies Hockey Club and later on, a Colchester badminton team. I also started playing golf in my mid-thirties and was a very active gardener as I got older.
'However, pre-diagnosis, I had an unexplained ‘attack’ which left me very fatigued with a tendency to quickly hit a ‘fatigue wall’ during any physical exercise, even just walking to the shop. This meant that my very active lifestyle came to something of an abrupt end, even though my mind still thought of myself as fit and active. Suddenly, I just couldn’t do the things that I used to do. Despite my mind telling my legs to run, jump or whatever, my muscles just weren’t able to comply. The messages from my brain just weren’t getting through. It was a very scary time and I began to get scared of trying to carry on doing any physical activity.
'I remember one time when I was still just able to trot a bit and I was walking across a field to our campervan, and it began to rain. I started to ‘run’ towards the van for shelter and took a big tumble which twisted my ankle, wrenched my back and gave me big bruises and muddy clothes. Luckily, I’d fallen on grass but as I’d not fallen over since I was a toddler according to my Mum, it gave me a big shock! This episode really dented my confidence and my physical activity reduced considerably after that.
'Once I received my MS diagnosis, I was overwhelmed by so many fears, worries and confusion. I found it difficult to take in and understand all the advice and information I was given. I didn’t ask about physical exercise or about many other things related to MS because I didn’t know enough to know what to ask, my mind was in a spin. All I remember was being told that ‘overdoing it’ could bring on a relapse, and to rest and pace myself or I would ‘pay for it’. This made me very worried about doing any physical exercise in case it brought on a relapse.
'After my diagnosis, I now exercise twice a week at MS-UK’s wellness centre Josephs Court on a Therabike and on the Vibeplate. I joined Josephs Court two years ago and have been aiming to strengthen my arm and leg muscles to help compensate for my severe fatigue and to reduce the risk of falls. I’m really pleased with my progress and I’m now able to do a lot more than I was able to do before I hit my ‘fatigue wall’. I’ve also learned how to pace myself better through the excellent coaching at Josephs Court and the MS-UK Mindfulness training.
'I now appreciate doing the exercise as it enables me to garden regularly, as long as I’m strict with my pacing! Now I have four grandchildren under the age of four and another on the way, and I have begun to feel that I would be missing out on enjoying family time together, but my increasing fitness and activity has meant that while I still find it very tiring to play with the three year olds, alongside looking after the one year old twins, I’ve been able to find ways to cope with them all and enjoy them without exhausting myself.
'I also have advice to those who are affected by MS and are nervous about exercising. I would say that I feel that good information is the key to living positively with MS. When I was first diagnosed 13 years ago, I didn’t ask questions. I was in denial for about 10 years before I finally plucked up the courage to go to Josephs Court. By then my fitness and strength had deteriorated massively impacting negatively on my general health and wellbeing, so I wish I had been able to ask the questions I needed to earlier in my diagnosis. I have found in the last two years that mental and physical wellbeing, with keeping yourself as fit and healthy as possible, are so important if you’re living with MS, or a similar chronic condition. When I started exercising at Josephs Court, I hit my fatigue wall almost immediately but with the help and encouragement of my Wellness Coach, Jay, I was able to slowly improve.
'Another benefit that I found with exercising is the social part of it. I loved meeting other clients, something I was very nervous about to start with. But chatting with other clients, comparing notes and encouraging others has been a lovely but unexpected bonus, and has really helped me look much more positively on myself with MS. Also, joining the social group and attending social events such as the regular coffee mornings, has been a very enjoyable revelation for me, and helps me to think so much more positively about MS.
'Finally, I find the exercising therapeutic, I feel really well after an exercise session – I am more relaxed and subsequently sleep better; and by the next morning my back and leg pain and spasticity are very much reduced. It improves my strength and stamina and increases my sense of wellbeing. Now, I can also enjoy time with my family and friends without constantly feeling exhausted. “I don’t feel ‘ill’ anymore!"'
'I was diagnosed with MS in the summer of 2007 and I quickly tried to find out more about it and what I could do. Of the various organisations offering advice, it was MS-UK (or MSRC as it was at the time) that I found most helpful and supportive. The pragmatic and un-blinkered information, the positive attitude of taking control of your own situation helped me through those first difficult few months, and that idea of taking control of your own health is still very much with me.
'Fortunately I then got the chance to join the Board of Trustees at MS-UK and it gave me a chance to use the skills I had developed in my management consulting career for an organisation that really was making a difference to people’s lives.
'Before I was diagnosed I was very physically active, despite a demanding job that took me to many places around the world. The mountains and mountaineering was my real passion, and as well as rock and ice climbing I ran and cycled. Ironically it was a friend seeing me stagger back from a day’s rock climbing that made me go to the doctor and started the process that led to my diagnosis.
'I have primary progressive MS and immediately after diagnosis my physical symptoms were pretty minor. But as my mobility worsened I couldn’t climb anymore, I kept falling over when running because of my foot drop, and tunnel vision when tired made road cycling too dangerous. Climbing was a big part of my life and not being able to do this felt like a huge loss to me.
'So now 12 years after diagnosis with PPMS I do what I can when it comes to exercise and it’s still a big part of my life. I can’t run at all or walk far, so I have a rowing machine for cardiovascular exercise. I used to have a rowing club nearby that offered assisted rowing which was wonderful. I have a home gym where I can do resistance and strength work and have joined The MS Gym.
'I have seen the benefits of exercising personally and am certain it has allowed me to recover some lost ability. For a while my foot drop was pretty bad - all my right shoes had the familiar tell-tale scuff marks around the toe. But amazingly I found that by working on my right foot and leg I managed to nearly get rid of the foot drop – so now it’s only when I’m really tired that I have a problem. This helped convince me that although I might not be able to recover all the function I’ve lost, I may be able recover some function and must do what I can to maximise what I have.
'I also have some advice to people affected by MS who are nervous about exercising. Exercise will not make your MS worse. Even if you feel exhausted or can’t even move immediately after exercising, you will recover. And it is fine to exercise to ‘failure’ and push your limits – just make sure you’re safe, be aware of form, and have time to recover. There are lots of stories from those with MS that have some functional recovery by exercising, including at basic levels of movement. Also brain loss as we age is much faster in those with MS and exercise slows this loss. However, it can be hard, especially with the fatigue and mobility issues. There is lots of help out there to start you on your exercising journey. Neuro physiotherapists can be incredibly helpful and your MS nurse or consultant might be able to refer you. Many gyms offer advice and training programmes, and there are assisted activities all over the UK. MS-UK and the MS Trust have general advice and more details on exercise programs.
'I also found that exercising with MS requires a huge amount of concentration and can be very tiring. It’s not just a case of “use it or lose it” because form is really important. When I exercise I’m also trying to create new neural pathways to overcome functional loss, so learning and practicing the right way to move is vital.
'Finally, I feel that exercising is therapeutic and I know that I have recovered some lost function through exercising. I’m convinced that if I didn’t exercise, I would have lost more function and exercise has helped me alter the trajectory of the condition. But I just enjoy doing it and feel so much better - even if I can’t move a step immediately afterwards!'
I have been living with multiple sclerosis (MS) for thirty-five years. In 2014 I noticed that walking was becoming more difficult and my MS nurse recommended that I contacted Josephs Court, MS-UK’s wellness centre in Colchester, Essex. I attended twice a week to exercise and became a founding member of their Steering Group. Before I was diagnosed with MS, I exercised every weekday walking for 10-15 minutes to the office where I worked in London. At lunchtime I would occasionally go for a 30 minute walk if the weather was kind, and this felt like it was a sufficient form of exercise. However I was unfortunately diagnosed with MS, but nevertheless I continued exercising in the same way for another 13 years until I eventually changed jobs in 1996. By then I commuted to Basildon by car – therefore my exercise regime came to an end.
But now, I visit Josephs Court two mornings a week, for 2-3 hours each time, and use most of the equipment available. I’ve also increased my exercise since the arrival of the latest university students, as one of them has given me some rigorous exercises using the parallel bars.
Now I feel that doing gentle exercise gives me a feeling of “getting one over on my MS” – it isn’t going to stop me from doing something that I enjoy, and there is a social aspect too. We are all suffering with the same disease label yet we don’t talk about it, we just enjoy one another’s company. The social aspect means I now have someone else to talk to, and shows that I needed something to relieve the boredom of not working, as I spent three years applying for jobs with no luck.
Finally, I thoroughly enjoying working with the student physiotherapist Becca, as she has brought new ways of exercising to me. I also find volunteering for MS-UK therapeutic – it is another reason for existing and gives me purpose.
'In 2016, I was diagnosed with progressive multiple sclerosis (MS) and decided to find out more about MS-UK’s wellness centre, Josephs Court, especially when it really began to affect my balance. I visited weekly and have found the welcoming atmosphere really helpful to me, especially with things such as discussing treatments, and getting ideas and tips for coping.
'Before my diagnosis, I played table tennis to county level as an under 17 and took qualifications to become a swimming teacher. In my youth, I even became a lifeguard with the Guildford Lifeguards. Many years later I joined a gym with my middle daughter Naomi, and we used to go several times a week.
'Alongside this, we also used to cycle to the school I was teaching in and where Naomi was also a teaching assistant. It really was downhill all the way to school, but uphill all the way back. Naomi was able to cycle all the way home, but I had to walk and push my bike for some of the way. Then in 2007, I moved to Great Totham so cycling to work was no longer an option, just an 80 mile round trip to school and back.
'After diagnosis however, my exercise regime was affected, and I didn’t think that exercise would work for me as it used to. My balance was going and I could no longer ride my bike as a result. I even tried stabilisers, but I continued falling off. Subsequently, I started going to Josephs Court and at first, I couldn’t really see the point of it. I could still walk even though my balance was shaky. However, I kept going and then soon realised just how much I needed what Josephs Court could offer and help me with.
'Following this, I ordered an adult tricycle, and was amazed when I was able to get on and ride it straight away, albeit not very far to begin with. But now two and a half years later, I’m able to ride 4.5 miles most days around my home village of Roxwell. I sometimes book myself in for a six week course of hydrotherapy. I think the feeling of being able to walk across the pool with no sticks or rollator is amazing.
'Because of what services there are for those diagnosed with MS, I can’t value exercise highly enough. I have always been competitive, so Josephs Court and tricycling gave me this challenge.'
Next week will mark MS Awareness Week 2019. This year we’re very excited to be working alongside the MS Trust and the National MS Therapy Centres to raise awareness of the benefits of exercise.
We have developed a free booklet all about exercise which includes some seated exercises to help you get started. We hope you find this useful and it includes first-hand quotes from other people who have been in your position - people who can truly understand and empathise with your feelings about exercise.
The MS-UK Helpline team
Today we have launched a new video all about our plans for the next three years. At MS-UK, we want to be truly community-led and we have developed our next strategy with this in mind.
Way back in February 2018 the whole charity agreed that we wanted to involve people affected by multiple sclerosis (MS) in a meaningful way. We were really keen to make sure we didn't just tick boxes, we wanted people affected by MS to share their insights and experiences with us and help us develop a way forward that makes a difference where it's needed most.
We asked the MS community 'what is the biggest difference we could make for you today?' And you answered...through attending focus groups, joining our Virtual Insight Panel, completing surveys and sending emails, you let us know what matters to you.
So, what are our priorities for the next three years? Watch or listen to our film today to find out!
You can also read our Strategic Plan for more information.
I am very excited about planning for a healthier and happier future, a future where we can improve understanding of MS and provide the support that is needed most. Thank you so much for all of your feedback over the past year, you have made this possible,