Objectives To investigate the relationship among attacks in the first 2 years (early relapses), secondary progression (SP), and late disability in multiple sclerosis (MS).
Design Cohort study with follow-up of 28 years.
Setting Referral MS center.
Patients Patients (N = 730) with relapsing-remitting MS diagnosed according to Poser criteria, from the database of the London Multiple Sclerosis Clinic, London, Ontario, Canada.
Main Outcome Measure Long-term evolution of patients with high (≥3 attacks) and early (within the first 2 years of the disease) frequency of relapses. In the total SP population and in patients grouped by numbers of early relapses, we assessed the predictive effect of latency to progression (time to SP) on times to attain cane requirement (Disability Status Scale score of 6 [DSS 6]) and bedridden status (DSS 8).
Results Among the group with frequent early relapses (n = 158), outcomes were variable. Although 103 (65.2%) experienced rapid conversion to SP MS (median duration, 5 years) and rapidly attained DSS 6 and DSS 8 scores (7 and 17 years, respectively), the remainder (n = 55) did not enter the SP phase, despite adverse early relapse features. Among the total SP population, longer latency to progression was associated with lower probability of attaining DSS 6 (odds ratio, 0.76 [95% CI, 0.69-0.84] and 0.44 [95% CI, 0.37-0.52] for 5- and 15-year latency, respectively) and longer times to severe disability. The same association between time to onset of SP and late outcomes was observed even in patients matched by number of early attacks. However, duration of the relapsing-remitting phase did not influence the times from SP onset to DSS levels.
Conclusions Our results indicate dissociation between early inflammatory attacks and onset of the SP phase and further question the validity of relapse frequency as a surrogate marker for late disability. Among the group with frequent early relapses, we observed a large variability of outcomes, ranging from one extreme to the opposite.