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Here’s How to Make Employment Work if You Have Multiple Sclerosis

By Emily Cade, MS, CRC, CCM, CLCP
Program Manager for the Andrew C. Carlos MS Institute at Shepherd Center

Because the majority of people who are newly diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS) fall between the ages of 20 and 50, it is only natural that the topic of work be at the top of someone’s list of concerns. The good news is most people with MS are able to continue to work in their chosen fields, although they may need to make modifications or request accommodations depending upon the symptoms they may experience. Two of the main symptoms that affect the ability of people with MS to work are fatigue and cognitive dysfunction.

Fatigue is one of the most common symptoms related to MS. According to the National MS Society, fatigue occurs in about 80 percent of people with MS and can significantly interfere with the ability to function at home and work. Here are some tips for dealing with fatigue:

  • Good sleep habits are imperative in helping decrease MS-related fatigue. The majority of people with MS experience some sort of sleep disorder, so it is important to keep your medical provider abreast of any changes you experience in your sleep patterns.
  • At work, be mindful of your work station. Do you notice you are taking too many steps to complete a task that was simple before? Are there ways you could rearrange your office space to decrease the amount of movement needed to do your job?
  • Examine the way your workday is structured. If you are more alert in the morning, try to schedule meetings then.
  • Do you notice your energy dips around 1 p.m.? Consider moving your lunch break back so you can have a longer period to recover.
  • If you work in an environment that exposes you to heat, consider a cooling vest because heat may increase MS symptoms.
  • And (as hard as this one is for many of us!) remember, regular exercise is important for decreasing fatigue and stress.
  • Your doctor may refer you to physical therapy or occupational therapy for treatment. Therapists can suggest ways to perform activities and use of assistive devices that may help decrease the fatigue you are feeling.

Cognitive dysfunction is another symptom that can affect the work life of people with MS. According to the National MS Society, about half of all people with MS will develop problems with cognition. People with MS may notice changes in memory, word-finding, planning, information processing, attention and concentration. Here are some tips for dealing with cognitive dysfunction:

  • Remember to take breaks to give yourself time to ”regroup” and “reset” when you feel overloaded.
  • You may want to consider asking for accommodations, such as changing offices if your current area is prone to distraction.
  • Consider asking for flexible hours. If you are more alert in the early mornings, could you work then and leave in the afternoon when you notice your symptoms increase?
  • When people with MS report symptoms related to cognition and work, healthcare providers may refer them to a speech therapist. A speech therapist can help individuals evaluate where deficits may lie, and investigate tools and strategies that might compensate for the changes they have noticed.
  • Another important team member who often works closely with speech therapy is a vocational case manager, who can work to insure treatment plans translate successfully to work.

While the decision to disclose to your employer is a personal one, if you are going to request any accommodations or modifications, you will need to disclose that you have a medical condition. Your human resources (HR) department is often a good place to start. Your HR manager should be trained in areas related to accessible employment and how to implement accommodations. When requesting accommodations, a great resource to check out is the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The commission gives detailed information on reasonable accommodations.

Navigating concerns related to work can be scary. Talk with your friends, family and healthcare provider. They may be able to make recommendations for professionals who can help guide you along the way. Here are some online resources:

EMILY CADE is the program manager for the Andrew C. Carlos MS Institute at Shepherd Center. She holds a master’s degree in rehabilitation counseling and is board certified in rehabilitation counseling, case management and life care planning. Since joining the staff at Shepherd Center in 2004. Emily has been an active member of the MS community, speaking to various groups on topics ranging from case management strategies to vocational disability issues. In 2009, she was awarded the NMSS GA chapter Medical Provider Volunteer of the Year Award. Most notably, she was a speaker at the Consortium of MS Centers International annual meeting.


About Shepherd Center

Shepherd Center provides world-class clinical care, research, and family support for people experiencing the most complex conditions, including spinal cord and brain injuries, multi-trauma, traumatic amputations, stroke, multiple sclerosis, and pain. An elite center recognized as both Spinal Cord Injury and Traumatic Brain Injury Model Systems, Shepherd Center is ranked by U.S. News as one of the nation’s top hospitals for rehabilitation. Shepherd Center treats thousands of patients annually with unmatched expertise and unwavering compassion to help them begin again.