Health Watch -- Treating MS

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A drug usually used to treat epilepsy may have benefits for multiple sclerosis patients.

Multiple sclerosis - or MS - is the most common disabling disease of young people, affecting about 350,000 Americans. It most often strikes people between the ages of 18 and 45, causing a variety of symptoms, including fatigue, vision problems, balance and coordination problems, tremors and stiffness.

Some MS patients have muscle spasms and cramps so severe that they can't walk. Researchers at UT Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas have found that a drug used to treat epileptic seizures is also effective in treating spasticity in MS patients. Stopping the muscle spasms may restore these patients' ability to move and walk.

Dr. Kathleen Hawker, the UT Southwestern neurologist who led the study, says the drug, known by the brand name keppra, appears to have other benefits for MS patients. Not only does it ease muscle spasms, but it also helps ease nerve pain. That, in turn, improves patients' moods. That means that instead of prescribing three different drugs to treat spasms, pain and depression, doctors can just give one drug that helps in all three areas. Using fewer drugs reduces the chances of drug interactions or side effects.

The drugs that are usually used to treat spasticity often have such side effects as lethargy, memory problems and weakness. In this study, doctors found that patients taking levetiracetam showed improvement whether it was taken alone or along with other therapies for spasticity. Side effects were generally mild.