You Need to See Your Regular Doctor, Too

If you are like me, when I think of my health, my multiple sclerosis dominates my thoughts. I run through my inventory of which symptoms are acting up and if I think my medications are causing side effects. Usually, it's only when I have an ailment that is causing severe discomfort, like a cold or stomach virus, that it occurs to me that there is more to my physical health than my MS.
However, as unfair as it might seem, people with MS are subject to the same health problems as those that preoccupy people that are not living with MS. We have the same lifestyle and aging issues as everyone else. We have to consider preventative care for things like heart disease, high blood pressure, cholesterol, our weight and our blood glucose as we age. Women need to get mammograms and pap smears on a regular basis. We need to keep up with immunizations, as well as visit dentists and eye doctors.
In addition to the risks that apply to everyone, there are special risks that we have that are directly or indirectly related to our MS, but that our neurologists may not really be aggressive about checking or equipped to diagnose or treat. Some of these things include:
  • Osteoporosis:People with MS are more likely to have osteoporosis (loss of bone density). This is usually due to a number of factors, including limited mobility, low levels of vitamin D (which is essential for calcium absorption) and excessive use of corticosteroids (for instance, many Solu-Medrol courses over a short period of time). Your doctor can order a bone scan to test for osteoporosis.
  • Depression:Depression can be a primary symptom of MS. It can also be indirectly caused by the losses and unpredictability of the future associated with MS in some people. While neurologists can certainly prescribe antidepressants, successful treatment of depression can be a lengthy and complicated process, often requiring many months of trial and error to find just the right regimen of medication at precise doses. Your neurologist or general practitioner should be able to refer you to a psychologist or psychiatrist to handle your depression, preferably one with experience treating patients with MS.
  • Vitamin deficiencies:People with MS tend to have low levels or deficiencies of vitamin D and vitamin B12. Your neurologist may or may not be able (or willing) to order these tests for you, but in many cases, you will have better luck with your general practitioner in getting these tests run and put on a treatment plan.
The bottom line is that our neurologists are not a one-stop shop for our health maintenance. There have been times when I asked my neuro about one health issue or another, and he would wink and say, "That is not my department. You need to see a real doctor for that."
So, make an appointment to see your regular doctor, whether that be an internist, a general practitioner or a gynecologist. Get the rest of yourself checked out. The last thing that any of us needs is additional health problems that could have been caught early or prevented by taking action and seeing our doctors.
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Julie Stachowiak, PhD

Julie is the author of the Multiple Sclerosis Manifesto, the winner of the 2009 ForeWord Book of the Year Award in the Health Category. She is an epidemiologist who is also a person living with MS, Julie has an in-depth understanding about current research and scientific developments around MS. She also has first-hand knowledge of the frustrations and anxiety surrounding the disease, as she had MS for at least 15 years before receiving a diagnosis in 2003 and has had several relapses since her diagnosis.