Understanding Multiple Sclerosis

  • Lifestyle Changes

    People with multiple sclerosis should make every effort to preserve their general health. A healthy diet, sufficient rest, establishing priorities to conserve energy, and developing emotional support networks can all be very helpful.

    Dietary Factors

    Some dietary suggestions for patients with MS include:

    • Drink two quarts of water a day and avoid caffeine-containing beverages, which are actually dehydrating. This helps avoid constipation (although may cause difficulties in patients who also have urge incontinence).
    • Eat a diet rich in fiber, particularly from whole grains (especially bran, oats, or flax), fruits (particularly prunes), and vegetables.
    • Low-fat diets have not proven to have much effect on MS but are, in any case, generally healthy.
    • Fish and fish oil. Omega-3 fatty acids, which are found in oily fish, have been associated with protection against inflammation and some reduction in symptoms in people with various autoimmune conditions. Such fatty acids are also available in supplements as docosahexaenoic (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic (EPA) acids. Standards for optimal amounts and forms of omega-3 fatty acids have not yet been established, however. Some experts recommend that people with MS eat three fish meals a week.

    Special diets, such as those that are gluten- or yeast-free, have not shown to have any direct effect on the symptoms or course of MS.

    Exercise and Physical and Occupational Therapy

    Exercise is an important component in managing MS. An active patient with MS is less likely to develop certain complications, such as bladder and bowel dysfunction, osteoporosis, permanent muscle contractions, ulcerations of the skin, or abnormal blood clotting. MS symptoms can temporarily worsen during physical activity, however, so any program must be planned carefully. A health professional should be consulted to determine the best form of physical activity. One study reported that physical rehabilitation for 3 weeks in a hospital setting was significantly more effective in achieving functional independence than home exercise. It is not known if the same benefits can be achieved with a similar program outside the hospital.

    Some suggestions include:

    • Exercise programs must be designed to stimulate working muscles, but at the same time avoid overload and overheating, which can block nerve conduction.
    • Stretching and range-of-motion exercises are important because they can relieve muscle spasticity.
    • Pool exercises are particularly helpful. Water supports the body, and cool water dissipates heat.
    • Specific exercises that strengthen and increase the endurance of muscles that control breathing functions may be helpful. However, it is unclear if such exercises reduce lung complications over the long-term.
    • Gradually, patients may be able to build up to more complex exercise programs.

    Cooling Methods

    Body overheating causes demyelinated nerves to function less efficiently than usual. Although this effect is resolved within a few hours of regaining normal body temperature, active cooling can help reduce fatigue and improve stability. The following measures may be helpful:

    • Use air conditioners in the summer
    • Keep the home slightly cool in winter
    • Avoid swimming in heated pools
    • A portable helmet that uses cold liquid to cool the head and neck and therefore lower core body temperatures may help MS symptoms during daily activities
    • Cooling suits are being investigated

    Prevention of Influenza

    MS symptoms worsen during a cold or the flu, probably because of increased immune system activity. Experts recommend that patients with MS receive a flu shot in the fall. However, experts warn that patients should not take the nasal spray version of the flu vaccine (FluMist Intranasal). Unlike the flu injection vaccine, which uses an inactivated virus, FluMist contains a live virus. Live virus vaccinations may be harmful for people with MS, especially those who take immune-suppressing drugs.