Though anecdotal and scientific evidence has suggested that stress may exacerbate symptoms of multiple sclerosis, it’s not known whether stress can actually trigger onset of the disease.

A study published Monday in the journal Neurology takes a fresh look at the issue and finds little to suggest that either ongoing life stress or the presence of a traumatic circumstance in a woman’s history is associated with the onset of MS.

MS is an autoimmune disease in which the body’s immune system attacks the sheaths covering nerves in the brain and spinal column. It’s thought to be caused by a combination of genetic predisposition and environmental trigger; stress could serve as such a trigger.

The new research looked at data from two big, multi-year surveys of female nurses who reported on various aspects of their health. Researchers examined 369 cases of women whose MS had first appeared after data regarding their experience with stress had been collected. That allowed a temporal relationship to be established in which the report of stress clearly came before the onset of MS.

Stress is hard to define in a scientific way. The researchers here looked at women’s self-reported stress related to life and work and also at their reports of childhood and adolescent physical and sexual abuse.

After controlling for age, ethnicity, latitude of birth, body mass index at age 18, and smoking -- all factors that might contribute to development of MS -- the researchers found no correlation between life- or work-related stress or childhood/adolescent physical abuse and likelihood of MS onset. The relationship they found between sexual abuse during youth and MS onset was statistically insignificant.

The authors acknowledge several study limitations, including the difficulty in defining and measuring stress. They conclude that further investigation of the possible link between MS onset and stress is warranted. And, they note, as only women were included in the databases they analyzed, their findings may apply only to females.

Do you have MS? Do you think stress played a role in your getting the disease? And do you find that stress exacerbates your symptoms? (I sure do! That’s one reason I do so much yoga!)