Working With MS: Multiple Sclerosis, Spinal Issues and the Office

April 27, 2019

Hand holding orange MS awareness ribbon
Sarah Handzel, BSN, RN

As many as 2.3 million people across the world live with multiple sclerosis (MS). This condition, which affects nerves inside the brain and spinal cord, is often diagnosed in individuals ages 20 – 50. Since many cases of MS are first discovered in a person's prime working years, continuing employment is often a very real concern.

But there is good news. Working with MS isn't impossible, and many people with MS continue to work long after their diagnosis. Employers are often happy to accommodate certain changes in the workplace to make your job easier. Knowing your rights, as well as what you're capable of, helps you stay as healthy and productive for as long as possible.

How MS Affects Your Spine

Your spinal cord is a key part of how your brain communicates with the rest of your body. Within your spinal cord, nerves transmit electrical impulses from your brain to other organs and tissues. Cells respond to these impulses by carrying out specific cellular functions.

If you live with MS, the outer coating of your nerves, called the myelin sheath, wears down and disappears over time. Symptoms occur as a result of the damage this process causes. There are several types of multiple sclerosis, and the symptoms you experience may not be the same as what another person lives with. In many cases, symptoms come and go over time during periods called exacerbations.

Common symptoms of MS include:

  • Burning, prickling or stinging sensations in your hands, arms, legs or feet
  • Muscle weakness and spasms
  • Visual and movement disorders

When MS affects nerves within the spine, people often experience problems with bladder or bowel function. You may find it difficult to retain urine, or you may experience some difficulty when you try to urinate. Additionally, MS affecting the spine may cause significant pain or muscle weakness which can make daily tasks difficult.

MS and Working: What You Should Know

It is still possible to work after receiving a multiple sclerosis diagnosis. But in many cases, individuals leave work sooner than they need to, often because of a flare-up of symptoms.

It's important to take your time in thinking about how you should approach MS and working. Certain symptoms may make it seem like you should quit your job, but you may find it's still possible to work while managing these problems. You can stay productive by:

  • Cataloging your symptoms: First, take stock of your personal symptoms and how they affect your ability to perform your job duties. This helps you and your employer identify performance area concerns and make recommendations to help you handle your job better.
  • Discuss accommodations: You may need certain accommodations in your workplace to help you and your company stay productive. Because everyone is affected by MS differently, your needs may differ from someone else's. Finding reasonable adjustments to your workload or routine can help keep you at your job longer.
  • Know your rights: Your employer can't fire you simply because you are diagnosed with MS. Additionally, thanks to legislation like the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), anyone living with a condition like MS is lawfully entitled to reasonable accommodation within the workplace. Learning more about your rights is one of the best ways to protect yourself and your job.

Working with MS is possible for many people, and you can join the ranks of individuals balancing their unique healthcare needs and their ability to earn a living. A proactive approach to making your needs known helps you identify ways to make work easier so that you can stay in the workforce longer.

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