When you have multiple sclerosis, doing almost anything feels like a struggle. On one level, sufferers often experience debilitating symptoms such as numbness in the limbs accompanied by tingling balance issues, impaired mobility, slurred speech and loss of bladder control as the disease progresses. In more severe cases, patients can become paralyzed or blind.
Mentally, the disease can affect critical thinking and other cognitive abilities. A common complaint is that patients have difficulty concentrating. And although it‘s a disease that can be controlled with medication and lifestyle, patients are often left feel frustrated, depressed or even angry.
Fortunately, there are some steps that patients can take to minimize or at least get around some of these complications.
Aim to Stay Cool
Patients with MS can suffer from heat intolerance as hot weather, sun exposure, a fever, hot baths or showers as well as vigorous exercise can aggravate and exacerbate symptoms. Staying cool is key to helping manage symptoms so be aware of all these situations and use a fan, air conditioner or cold compress when necessary. Also try wearing layers of clothing that can be removed if you feel hot.
Assemble a support team
Multiple sclerosis is a chronic condition that really benefits from a team approach. That team can include a doctor, physician’s assistant or nurse practitioner, physical therapist, dietician, massage therapist as well as family and friends who can support and care for you when you experience a relapse or exacerbation of symptoms. It’s important to remain socially engaged since MS patients are at risk of developing depression and anxiety. Limited mobility can mean social isolation so make sure you have transportation options if you cannot drive.
Patients with MS are at risk of developing depression and anxiety so having a support team and transportation options to maintain social engagement are critical.
Physical therapy is crucial
Every patient’s symptoms and disease can progress differently. Physical therapy can help each individual cope with physical changes, especially if they severely limit you. Working with a physical therapist or specialized personal trainer can help you to maintain balance, build upper body strength and also help you to use mobility aids (walker, cane) properly if needed.
Take an active role in your care
It’s important to watch for signs of infection because a secondary illness can cause MS symptoms to flare up. Additionally, make sure you get age appropriate screenings, and regular visual check-ups. Cancer screenings in particular are paramount as a 2012 study suggests that MS patients are less likely to have cancer diagnosed. Regular dental checkups are important too because periodontal disease may not show symptoms until there’s a full blown infection. Also make sure to monitor bladder issues since you may be at higher risk of developing urinary tract infections (UTIs).
Lifestyle factors can make a huge difference
Maintaining a healthy lifestyle can go a long way towards minimizing relapses and symptoms. That means keeping a healthy weight, eating a nutrient dense diet, meeting vitamin D goals daily, staying hydrated, exercising and maintaining good personal hygiene. Let’s get more into specifics.
Diet: A highly nutritious and balanced diet can support a healthy nervous system as well as provide the building blocks (protein) necessary to support muscle mass. It’s essential to get adequate levels of vitamin D, which helps to limit MS flare ups. It’s also important to manage sodium intake in MS. Too much sodium is associated with increased disease activity. Another good tip is to keep the immune system robust by maintaining a balance of gut microbiota. The DASH diet or Mediterranean diets are good dietary programs for someone with MS.
Exercise: Staying fit plays significantly into the well-being of patients with MS. It can help support cardiac health, improve upper and lower body strength, improve bladder control, reduce fatigue and depression while boosting mood. Aim to exercise in the earlier hours and later afternoon hours during the warmer months to avoid peak temperatures. Physical activities such as yoga, water exercises and Tai Chi can be beneficial for MS patients. A stretching program can help too.
Physical Therapy: A physical therapist can assist specifically with spasticity, balance, walking problems, lack of coordination, fatigue, pain, stiffness, posture, and maintaining daily activities. In some cases, you may have to learn new ways to bathe, dress, go to the bathroom, shower as well as cooking and cleaning. A physical therapist can also recommend mobility aids if necessary.
Coping with your limitations
There’s no cure for MS so it’s important to minimize pain and fatigue. This may mean adjusting work conditions due to complications such as morning stiffness, decreased range of motion and other physical limitations. A good support team that includes mental health support can help you regain a sense of control over your life and prevent depression from setting in. You may also benefit from vocational training.
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Amy Hendel, also known as The HealthGal, is a Physician Assistant, nutritionist and fitness expert. As a health media personality, she’s been reporting and blogging on lifestyle issues and health news for over 20 years. Author of The 4 Habits of Healthy Families, her website offers daily health reports, links to her blogs, and a library of lifestyle video segments.