Multiple sclerosis and cognitive problems

Cognitive problems are common symptoms in MS and roughly 50% of all patients experience some kind of cognitive problem at some point in their lives. The symptoms may be very mild and it can take time before you realize that you are having an MS related problem. Forgetting where you put your keys is after all a universal problem... Right?
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Cognition is everything related to thinking, it could be memory, learning abilities or concentration. Most MS patients experience some kind of cognitive problem, but as with all other symptoms related to MS, they can vary in severity, from so mild that you might not notice the symptom, to it being quite severe. Like the physical symptoms, these symptoms also tend to follow the relapse-remission course.

If you do tend to forget where you put your keys, it's not necessarily a symptom- remember that we all have our strengths and weaknesses and by nature are good (and bad) at different things.

Common cognitive problems

Usually a patient will experience one or two symptoms, but you could experience more. Even though you have several symptoms, they rarely get so severe that they affect your everyday life significantly. The most common cognitive problems concern:

-Memory (remembering and learning)
-Attention and concentration (Keeping focus)
-Information processing (Use of the 5 senses)
-Executive functions (organizing, problem solving and prioritizing)
-Verbal fluency (Finding the right words)

What usually affects patients the most, when they have cognitive symptoms, is the stress it brings. When you struggle to remember words or can't stay focused, it is normal to feel like you are going crazy. The stress in turn can make the symptoms worse, so try and stay calm when you get frustrated that your mind doesn't seem to “work as it usually does”. Also fatigue, relapses, anxiety, poor nutrition, high alcohol consumption and tranquilizers can make your cognitive problems worse.

There are things you can do in order to “train” your memory. Finding the right strategy for dealing with the symptoms is individualized and what works for one person, might not work for another. Training often involves the use of psychologists, speech and language therapists or occupational therapists. But there are also things you can do on your own, in order to ease your everyday life:

- Creating routines. E.g. always keeping things in the same place. Or doing specific tasks at the same time every day.
- Make a “memory board » and make a habit of using it every day
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Prioritize and shut down background noise such as the TV.
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Use helpers. Set alarms, tape thoughts, make post-it's etc.
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Avoid doing tasks that demand concentration when feeling fatigued.