Gasping for Breath: When MS Attacks Your Lungs
Among the many possible complications of multiple sclerosis (MS) is a reduction in your ability to exhale fully and to cough effectively enough to clear secretions or food from your airway. A serious consequence of these changes is a higher risk of respiratory infections like pneumonia.
Changes in lung function can also cause fatigue, as you work harder to breathe and supply your body with the oxygen it needs.
How MS Affects the Lungs
There are a number of ways that MS can lead to breathing problems, including the following:
Lesions in the Brain As multiple sclerosis progresses, lesions in your brain and spine can affect almost every aspect of your physical functioning. It’s possible that brain lesions could change your lung function, says Zulma Hernandez-Peraza, MD, neurologist at the University of Illinois Hospital and Health Sciences System in Chicago.
Spinal Lesions These can also restrict your ability to get air in and out of the lungs, says neurologist Staley Brod, MD, professor of neurology at the Medical College of Wisconsin in Milwaukee.
“A lesion in the cervical spine creates the ‘MS hug’ sensation, which can cause the feeling of shortness of breath,” adds Dr. Hernandez-Peraza. “This is usually just an unpleasant perception. When tested, the oxygen levels in your blood should be normal.”
The MS hug is caused by spasms in the intercostal muscles, the small muscles between the ribs.
Muscle Weakness and Spasticity “Weakness can affect breathing,” says Dr. Brod. When the muscles that help with inhaling and exhaling are weak, you may not be able to breathe deeply enough to bring in the oxygen you need. Spasticity in those muscles contributes to the problem.
Sleep Apnea “This is one of the most common breathing problems in MS,” says Hernandez-Peraza. Sleep apnea, which is interrupted breathing during your sleep, can be caused by multiple sclerosis lesions as well as other chronic health conditions.
Medication One of the side effects of the MS disease-modifying drug Gilenya (fingolimod) is a reduction in some measures of lung function. Some types of medication, such as tranquilizers, muscle relaxants, and opioids, can also slow or reduce breathing.