Physical Therapy for Multiple Sclerosis
Posted on 6/18/2018 by Erica Zettlemoyer, P.T., DPT
Multiple Sclerosis (MS) is a progressive disease in which the body’s immune system attacks the central nervous system (CNS). The CNS is composed of the brain, spinal cord and optic nerves. Our nerves are surrounded by a fatty substance called myelin, which allows electrical messages to be delivered quickly from the brain to the correct muscle. In MS, the myelin is damaged, scars are formed and the electrical message from our brain is disrupted. This creates a less efficient movement pattern, as well as pain, weakness, heat sensitivity, fatigue, numbness, vision changes and other impairments.
Multiple Sclerosis and Exercise – Though researchers are making significant advances in treating MS, there is still not a cure. However, there are various treatments which focus on slowing the progression of the disease and managing symptoms. Exercise is considered one of these treatments. In a published study, people with MS who participated in 15 weeks of three 40-minute training sessions per week were shown to demonstrate improved cardiovascular fitness, strength and overall health.¹
Multiple Sclerosis and Physical Therapy – Due to the complexity of MS, it is important to work with a physical therapist who will create a specialized exercise program based on one’s progression and severity of symptoms. Treatments will focus on general conditioning, strengthening, flexibility and balance as well as postural education, positioning and respiratory function. In more severe cases, a therapist will assist in the utilization of equipment, such as bracing, wheelchairs, standing frames. Several of the challenges that must be considered include:
Heat Sensitivity: Many patients with MS report a sensitivity to heat. A rise in core body temperature of as little as 0.5ᵒ C can intensify symptoms. A physical therapist can guide patients through several ideas that will assist in controlling body temperature while exercising. Using a fan, drinking cold water prior, during and after activity as well as utilizing cooling vests and wrist bands are helpful in controlling body temperature. Other ideas include placing a cooler in the car with cold drinks and starting the air conditioning in the car 10 minutes prior to leaving.
Lassitude: Fatigue affects 74 to 89 percent of those diagnosed with MS.² It is the initial symptom for almost half of those diagnosed, even predating diagnosis by as much as 10 years.³ A physical therapist can help patients address modifiable factors that increase fatigue, such as activity, respiratory weakness, thermosensitivity, pain, deconditioning and movement compensation.
Bone Density Loss: When exercising, it is important to focus on strengthening with resistance. Those diagnosed with MS may suffer from bone density loss due to Vitamin D deficiency and increased use of steroids. Participating in a weekly strengthening program while utilizing weights may improve bone health. A physical therapist can guide patients in safely incorporating resistance into an exercise program.
Examples of Appropriate Exercises – It is helpful to know that when exercising with MS, we should look at the total amount of exercise minutes for the day. For example, if someone can participate in riding a stationary bike for five minutes in the morning, five minutes in the afternoon and five minutes in the evening, that will give them 15 minutes of total cardio exercise for the day. Walking on a treadmill, walking inside or standing activities are other examples of exercises that can be modified to one’s functional and physical capabilities.
Strengthening exercises can include bridges, clams, heel raises, sit-to-stand transitions squats, step-ups and rows. Wall push-ups and triceps dips are especially important for fall recovery training. I recommend working on eight to 15 repetitions while using an appropriate resistance level.
Stretching is important and should focus on calf muscles, hamstrings, hip flexors and pectorals. When incorporating balance activities, vary the surface you are practicing on, whether seated or standing. For example, sitting on a wobble board or standing on foam will maximize training.
Beginning an exercise program does not have to be overwhelming or intimidating. Each patient with MS will tolerate exercise differently and a physical therapist can individualize each program to meet the needs of that individual. The MS Society and Multiple Sclerosis Association of America are also valuable resources for those who are seeking information on exercise.
For more information regarding physical therapy for MS, please contact a center near you today!
Petajan J, Gappmaier E, White A, Spencer M, Mino L, Hicks R. Impact of aerobic training on fitness and quality of life in multiple sclerosis. Annals of Neurology. April 1996 39(4):432-41
Murray TJ. Amantadine therapy for multiple sclerosis. Can J Neurol Sci 1985; 12:251-254
Krupp L, Alvarez L, LaRocca N, et al. Arch Neurol. 1988 45(4):435-437
White L, Dressendorfer R. Fitness testing in multiple sclerosis: a case report. Med Sci Sports Exerc 2003;35 (5): S314
By: Erica Zettlemoyer, P.T., DPT, is a licensed physical therapist at Baylor Scott and White Institute for Rehabilitation. She received a doctorate of physical therapy in 2010 from Texas Woman’s University and is a Certified Multiple Sclerosis Specialist.