Methylprednisolone is a man-made molecule that mimics cortisol, a naturally occurring glucocorticoid hormone with powerful immunosuppressive and anti-inflammatory properties.
Because of its ability to dampen inflammatory responses, methylprednisolone is often used in the treatment of multiple sclerosis (MS) and other immune system disorders.
It is commonly used to manage acute relapses — times when new symptoms appear or existing ones suddenly worsen — in people with MS. It does not slow the overall progression of the disease, but helps to reduce inflammation and speed recovery from relapses.
Methylprednisolone is approved for MS use under the brand names Medrol and Solu-Medrol. Generic versions of this medicine also are available.
MS relapses are driven by new inflammatory activity of certain immune cells, which cause new lesions (regions of damage) or increase the volume of existing lesions in the brain and spinal cord.
Like other corticosteroids, methylprednisolone works mainly by dampening the inflammatory activity of immune cells, decreasing their numbers and the pro-inflammatory signaling molecules they produce.
The medication also reduces the permeability of blood vessels, including the capillaries that form the blood-brain barrier — a highly selective and protective membrane that prevents certain substances and immune cells from entering the brain and spinal cord. This results in fewer inflammatory cells being able to reach and cause damage to these organs.
Methylprednisolone’s mechanism of action is virtually identical to the corticosteroid prednisone. But due to chemical differences, methylprednisolone is generally more potent, so a lower dose is needed to achieve the same effect. Specifically, a 4 mg dose of methylprednisolone is equivalent to a 5 mg dose of prednisone.
Methylprednisolone is used to control symptoms during acute MS relapses, but the exact regimen — the dose and duration — usually is adapted to a person’s individual needs. Some patients may experience a gradual improvement in symptoms after a relapse and may forgo corticosteroid treatment, avoiding potential side effects.
While the overall safety and efficacy of methylprednisolone are similar in children and adults, the medication can interfere with normal growth in young people. Thus, the growth and development of children on prolonged therapy should be carefully monitored.
Some methylprednisolone formulations that are given via injection — such as Solu-Medrol — contain benzyl alcohol as a preservative. This has been associated with serious adverse events and death, especially in infants.
There are limited data on patients ages 65 and older to determine if they respond differently to corticosteroids. Some studies have not shown any overall differences in safety and efficacy, but methylprednisolone nonetheless should be used with caution in this population.
Research has shown a greater incidence of other medical conditions, called comorbidities, and increased use of additional medications at more advanced ages.
Methylprednisolone should not be used by anyone with a known allergy to the medication or any of the components in its formulation. It also is not recommended for patients with an active fungal infection.
Formulations of methylprednisolone administered via injection may include components produced from cow’s milk and should not be given to anyone with a known allergy to dairy products. These formulations also are preserved with benzyl alcohol and, for this reason, should not be given to premature infants.
Several formulations of methylprednisolone are available: the medication may be taken orally, or given via injection into the bloodstream (intravenous injection) or into the muscle (intramuscular injection).
A number of different protocols may be used to manage relapses in MS, but treatment generally involves a few days of high doses of corticosteroids, such as methylprednisolone, that are given intravenously.
After the initial high-dose treatment, patients then receive gradually lower doses of oral methylprednisolone or other oral corticosteroids for the next several days or weeks. This “tapering off” is recommended because suddenly stopping corticosteroids can cause withdrawal symptoms such as anxiety, sweating, nausea, and insomnia.
According to the label for Solu-Medrol, a daily dosage of 160 mg of methylprednisolone for one week, followed by 64 mg every other day for one month, has been shown to be effective for controlling relapses in MS.
However, dosing may require some fine-tuning in each patient and, during individual relapses, to identify a dose that is high enough to ease MS symptoms, but as low as possible to prevent the potential side effects of corticosteroids.
The most common side effects of methylprednisolone include:
Corticosteroids can cause the body to retain water and salt, while increasing the excretion of calcium and potassium. They also can increase blood pressure. Blood pressure and salt levels should be monitored during treatment.
Methylprednisolone can cause mood and behavioral changes, such as:
These emotional issues also may worsen due to corticosteroid therapies.
Corticosteroids like methylprednisolone mimic the activity of a naturally occurring hormone called cortisol, and may increase the risk of hormone-related problems that should be monitored. These may include the following:
Because methylprednisolone works to reduce the activity of the immune system, it can increase the risk of infections and worsen pre-existing ones. It also can mask symptoms of an infection, because some obvious signs of infection (e.g., fever) are caused by the immune system’s response and not by the infectious agent.
Special caution is advised in patients who have never had chicken pox (varicella) or measles, as these viral infections may have serious consequences for patients on corticosteroids.
Patients on corticosteroids also should be monitored for a type of cancer called Kaposi’s sarcoma, associated with the gastrointestinal tract. In some cases, discontinuing the therapy may be sufficient for the immune system to clear out this cancer.
Because methylprednisolone reduces immune activity, it may compromise a person’s ability to respond to vaccinations and mount effective immune responses once exposed to the threat. Vaccines containing live or attenuated (weakened) viruses are not recommended for patients receiving immunosuppressive doses of methylprednisolone; killed or inactivated vaccines can be administered.
Prolonged use of methylprednisolone can increase the risk of eye infections and other eye problems like cataracts and glaucoma. Patients with herpes simplex, a type of eye infection, should use the medication with caution, as it may cause a tear in the cornea, the transparent layer at the front of the eye.
Methylprednisolone also may increase the risk of gastrointestinal perforation — a tear in the digestive tract — in people with certain gastrointestinal conditions, though signs of such perforation may be minimal or absent.
In patients who recently experienced a heart attack, the use of corticosteroids may increase the risk of rupture in the heart’s chambers. These patients should use methylprednisolone with extreme caution.
By lowering calcium levels in the body, corticosteroids like methylprednisolone can decrease bone formation and lead to osteoporosis — a condition in which bones are more fragile and break easily. The medications also can interfere with bone growth in children and adolescents, who should be monitored closely during treatment for alterations in growth and development.
Injectable formulations of methylprednisolone may cause skin changes at the injection site, usually in the form of depressions. Patients should not exceed the recommended doses of methylprednisolone to avoid potential skin problems.
Methylprednisolone has not been well-studied during pregnancy in humans, but research in animals suggests that it may cause toxicity to the developing fetus. A decision on whether or not to use this medicine during pregnancy should be made by carefully weighing the potential benefits and risks. Patients should discuss this treatment with their physicians and care team.
Close monitoring is recommended for children exposed to methylprednisolone during pregnancy.
According to methylprednisolone’s label, the medication can pass into breast milk and cause unwanted side effects in nursing babies, including hormonal problems and slowed growth. Patients who are nursing should discuss with their healthcare team whether to breastfeed or take methylprednisolone.
Multiple Sclerosis News Today is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website.
Most people with MS experience relapses, which are periods when symptoms suddenly worsen or new ones appear due to active inflammation in the central nervous system. Methylprednisolone is used in MS to control this inflammation, which helps to ease symptoms and speed recovery from acute relapses. However, the medication does not seem to slow or otherwise alter the overall progression of the disease.
According to animal studies, corticosteroids like methylprednisolone may cause harm to a developing fetus. Methylprednisolone use during pregnancy should be considered only if the potential benefits outweigh the risks. Patients should discuss this topic with their healthcare team.
The prescribing information for methylprednisolone-based formulations does not report a direct interaction between the medication and alcohol. However, methylprednisolone can make the stomach and intestines more susceptible to the irritating effects of alcohol, which increases the risk of ulcers. Patients are recommended to talk with their healthcare provider about the risks of alcohol consumption during methylprednisolone treatment.
It is difficult to determine when someone with MS will respond to methylprednisolone, especially because treatment regimens are tailored based on a patient’s particular needs. Corticosteroids infused into the bloodstream generally act faster than oral medications, and the effects usually can be seen after about one week. However, patients should discuss a timeline with their healthcare team for when methylprednisolone is expected to work in their particular situation.
Increased appetite and weight gain are some of the most common side effects of methylprednisolone and other corticosteroids. Thinning scalp hair also is indicated as a potential side effect on the medication’s label.
Get regular updates to your inbox.