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MS and Women: Grow your Knowledge

4 September 2023

MS Australia, as a leading organisation in the fight against multiple sclerosis (MS), plays a vital role in funding ground-breaking research and providing resources for women affected by the disease in Australia.  

With over 33,000 people diagnosed with MS in this country, MS disproportionately affects more women than men, with approximately three times as many women diagnosed with MS. This disparity highlights the need for greater awareness and improved support systems for these women and drives our ongoing commitment to addressing these challenges. 

Early diagnosis and effective health management can significantly impact the trajectory of MS, offering hope and ensuring better longer-term outcomes and quality of life. For women living with MS, the first step towards empowerment is knowledge. MS Australia offers comprehensive and relevant information about MS, its symptoms, treatment options, and lifestyle management tips. Armed with this information, carers, friends and family can provide support, those curious about MS can grow their knowledge, and women living with MS can make informed decisions about their health and wellbeing. 

MS is an unpredictable debilitating autoimmune disease, affecting women in various ways, with a wide range of physical, emotional, and cognitive symptoms. These can range from fatigue, pain, and mobility challenges to mood swings and memory difficulties. And given that MS is often diagnosed in young adulthood, MS can dramatically impact a woman’s life, career, and relationships. 

2023 Women’s Health Week daily themes 

Women’s Health Week is a nation-wide campaign of events and online activities and resources – all centred on improving women’s health and helping women to make healthier choices. It provides an excellent opportunity to raise awareness for the need of the broader community to support women with MS. The Women’s Health Week 2023 theme is Grow your Knowledge, which is about raising awareness and supporting women to make informed decisions about their health, with information that’s easy to understand.

MS Australia encourages people to better educate themselves and others about MS and the challenges women face. Greater understanding, as well as advocacy and awareness initiatives encourage empathy, help break down barriers, and can encourage policymakers to prioritise health services and support for women with MS. Throughout Women’s Health Week, the Grow your Knowledge daily themes emphasise crucial topics, all relevant to women with MS. 

Day 1: Monday 4 September – Check me out  

There is increasing evidence that having medical conditions in addition to MS has a negative impact on MS relapses, disability progression, severity of symptoms, employment outcomes and hospitalisation. Research undertaken as part of the Australian MS Longitudinal Study shows that additional health conditions are common and MS Australia encourages women with MS to make health checks and screenings a fundamental part of their journey towards living a fulfilling and healthy life. By proactively addressing health needs and seeking early detection, women with MS can optimise their overall wellbeing and resilience in the face of MS and other potential health challenges.  

Day 2: Tuesday 5 September – Pain drain  

Pain is a common invisible symptom of MS can be an invisible symptom of MS and has the potential to cause many flow-on effects, which can be detrimental to health and wellbeing in MS, including poor sleep, fatigue, depression, and anxiety.  

There are many options available to treat pain depending on the cause, and some treatments may be used in conjunction with each other to improve the overall benefits. Options include medications, physiotherapy sessions that can include stretching, exercise and movement, and occupational therapy assessments of posture and seating.  

MS Australia is funding several researchers who are exploring the impact of pain and pain management, including Associate Professor Gila Moalem-Taylor and Ms Alice Saul. Additionally, the International Progressive MS Alliance, of which MS Australia is a managing member, has launched a large-scale program of research to identify and implement solutions to some of the most challenging symptoms that people with progressive MS experience, including pain. 

Together, we can work towards enhancing pain management strategies, promoting holistic wellbeing, and empowering women to lead fulfilling lives despite the challenges of MS and chronic pain. 

Day 3: Wednesday 6 September – Hello hormones   

Hormonal changes can have a profound impact on women with MS. As women navigate different life stages, it is essential to understand how these changes may interact with MS and influence symptoms.  

When MS occurs in children, boys and girls are affected equally, but after puberty the number of females diagnosed sharply rises. After menopause, the risk of developing MS in men and women is again similar. This is thought to be linked to the relative levels of sex hormones in women changing through the course of their lives.  

Traditionally it has been thought that symptoms of MS worsen during menopause, although this is difficult to distinguish from the natural progression of disease with age. These findings underscore the significance of understanding the interplay between hormones and MS, paving the way for targeted support and management strategies. MS Australia’s Head of Research, Dr Julia Morahan, has written an informative article on sex hormones in MS. 

Day 4: Thursday 7 September – Making it work   

MS is often diagnosed in people’s 20s and 30s and most commonly in women, at a time when establishing a career and consolidating an income are important goals. There are various factors which can have a significant impact on women with MS while in their workplace, including disclosure, stigma, pain, fertility treatment and mental health.  

MS Australia acknowledges the significant disconnect between supportive community attitudes towards co-workers with health conditions like MS, and the reality of poor experiences within workplaces and recognises the challenges that women with MS may encounter in their health and wellbeing while juggling work responsibilities.  

Research from the Australian MS Longitudinal Study (AMSLS) has shown that there have been major advancements over the past decade to support those with MS to remain in the workforce, with a steady rise in workplace participation in recent years. However, over half of those employed still reported at least some loss of productivity while at work. This was largely attributed to fatigue and cognitive symptoms, and pain and sensory symptoms.  

In addition to this, self-confidence, self-efficacy (an individual’s belief in their capacity to reach goals) and interpersonal difficulties at work are also crucial factors governing work productivity in people with MS.  

MS Australia acknowledges that in addition to MS, women can experience other health issues related to menopause, period pain and fertility treatment that could affect their work productivity. Furthermore, while there have been changes to traditional caring roles over the years, women are still overwhelmingly responsible for care.  

With great advances being made in assisting women with MS to remain in the workplace, the focus now needs to shift slightly to making sure that time spent at work is comfortable, productive and sustainable.  

A multidisciplinary support team assisting in symptom self-care, skills around effective communication about MS in the workplace, the psychological impact of work and the modification of work demands may positively influence employment outcomes.  

While employers can play a large role in providing the required support for women with MS, the need for resources to allow individuals to be able to proactively help themselves has also been recognised. 

MS Australia has developed online information guides for employers and employees, which provide information on disclosure, managing MS symptoms and how employers can support employees.  

Day 5: Friday 8 September – Food for thought   

This theme provides an excellent opportunity to explore the vital role of diet and nutrition in the lives of women with MS. Making informed food choices, adopting healthy eating habits, and prioritising brain and gut health can promote overall wellbeing for women living with MS.  

MS Australia has a range of resources available to help women with MS make informed food choices. Our Health and Wellbeing Hub provides evidence-based articles on recommendations and research into diet and nutrition.  

MS Australia is also funding a range of projects investigating the role of diet in MS, including projects by Ms Olivia Wills and Dr Steve Simpson-Yap who were awarded grants in the 2023 funding round. 

Breaking down barriers together 

Jean Hailes Women’s Health Week is a time to celebrate the resilience of women and acknowledge the unique challenges they face in their health journey.  

For women with MS, the path is no doubt more arduous, but with the unwavering support of the community and organisations like MS Australia and its Member Organisations, there is reason for hope.  

Together, we can create a more inclusive and supportive world for all women, regardless of their health circumstances. 

Check out the many events on the Jean Hailes website, including MS-related events.  

For more resources and information on Women’s Health Week 2023, visit the MS Australia website. 

For more information on research that MS Australia funds, please visit here. 

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MS and Women: Grow your Knowledge