Managing Multiple Sclerosis Symptoms with Exercise

When multiple sclerosis (MS) disrupts the flow of information within the brain, each person living with the disease experiences different symptoms at different levels of severity. While the disease is unpredictable in so many ways, most people living with MS find that exercise help to improve some symptoms and overall health and well-being.

The majority of people diagnosed are women between the ages of 20 and 50. Some of the most common symptoms of this central nervous system disease, according to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society are fatigue, walking (gait) difficulties, numbness and tingling (especially in the face body and extremities), weakness, pain and depression.

As MS progresses and disrupts the flow of information between the brain and the body, many people living with the disease become inactive. This inactivity results in lost muscle tone and “disuse” weakness, poor posture alignment and trunk control, decreased bone density (and the increased risk of fracture) and shallow, inefficient breathing. Exercise is one tool to help with symptom management.

Back in 1996, a University of Utah study was the first to prove the benefits of exercise for people with MS. Those study patients who participated in an aerobic exercise program benefited from better cardiovascular fitness, improved strength, better bladder and bowel function, less fatigue and depression, a more positive attitude and increased participation in social activities. The National MS Society says additional studies have confirmed the benefits of exercise, including improvement in cognitive function and mood enhancement.

A study published in 2015 in the Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness showed that eight weeks of water exercise helped improve quality of life and decrease perceptions of fatigue for women with MS. Aquatic exercise is often recommended for people with MS, because the water makes the body feel lighter. The buoyancy provides some de-weighting that can support weak limbs, require less effort for movement and help improve balance and coordination. Hydrostatic pressure can help support standing and walking with less effort than on land.

Another way for people with MS to decrease the feeling of weight and reduce pain is by walking or running on the AlterG® Ant-Gravity Treadmill™.  Gravity’s impact is reduced in the AlterG by selecting any weight between 20% and 100% of body weight in 1% increments. By wearing special shorts and zipping securely into the AlterG®, a walk on the Anti-Gravity Treadmill becomes a fall-safe environment for exercise and gait training. Patients with MS can work with a physical therapist on lower body strength through squats, heel raises and single leg squats while in the AlterG. For those with decreased balance, the AlterG offers dynamic balance support that can be reduced as progress is made.

It is important for anyone to talk to a physician before beginning an exercise program, especially for those with MS. The Anti-Gravity Treadmill may not be an option for all patient with MS, including those with:

* Dizziness/vertigo. May be exacerbated with the feeling of unweighting.

* Sensitivity to heat. The interior of the AlterG may get too hot. A solution may be scheduling exercise at an earlier time of day or plan to be the first person on the AlterG on a given day.

* Spasms. These may be exacerbated with decreasing body weight

If the Anti-Gravity Treadmill is appropriate for someone with MS, a physical therapist can create a personalized exercise plan that fits capabilities and limitations. That therapist will help supervise the exercise sessions and adjust the plan as needed.

The Anti-Gravity Treadmill may improve overall physical function for patient with MS, including walking, mobility, flexibility, balance and endurance. Exercising while being unweighted may result in less pain and greater range of motion. And exercise in general may reduce stress and ease depression.

While the cause of MS is uncertain, the National MS Society says that MS may be triggered by an undetermined environmental factor in those who are genetically predisposed to the disease. Until a cure is found, exercise can improve well-being and manage symptoms for many of those living with MS.