Living with MS

Now that the multiple sclerosis diagnosis shock has worn off, the reality of living with this chronic illness has begun. Multiple sclerosis, or MS, is a life-long disease where the immune system incorrectly attacks healthy tissue in the central nervous system. In essence, the nerve signals between the brain, the spinal cord and other parts of the body are no longer in sync resulting in limb numbness, blurred vision, imbalance, amongst a host of other symptoms. As every MS patient is different, the severity of ailments, which traditionally begin between the ages of 20 and 50, may vary, disappear completely, or worsen over time.

More than one million people in the United States over the age of 18, and 2.3 million worldwide, live with the diagnosis of MS and maintain a high-quality of life by employing some healthy lifestyle choices. According to the National MS Society, wellness can be defined as a “dynamic state of physical, emotional, spiritual and social well-being that can be achieved even in the presence of a chronic illness or disability”. To achieve this state of “wellness”, MS patients may have to adapt their current lifestyle upon diagnosis including the integration of physical activity, nutrition and mindfulness activities.

Incorporating regular exercise as part of one’s overall lifestyle benefits MS patients not only physically but can benefit them cognitively as well. While moderate aerobic activity and strength training may be taxing, it actually helps alleviate overall fatigue and depression as well as reduces the risk of obesity which can exacerbate MS symptoms. The key is to work with a medical team to find the optimal fitness regimen that takes the individual patient needs into consideration.

According to the National MS Society, exercise for people living with MS has helped improve:

  • Cardiovascular function
  • Strength
  • Bladder and bowel function
  • Fatigue
  • Mood
  • Cognitive function
  • Bone density
  • Flexibility

Physical activity not only includes traditional aerobic exercise but can be as simple as performing household chores, cooking, gardening or dog walking – anything that requires muscle use. Water exercise is especially beneficial to stretch tight muscles and improve flexibility as the buoyancy of the water allows for greater movement while keeping the body temperature regulated. In addition to exercise, a healthy diet including vegetables and fruit, whole grains, fish and lean proteins, low sodium/processed foods and limiting alcohol can significantly impact a person’s MS progression and lifespan.

Cognitive and emotional wellness can equally impact the disease’s effect on the body. Many patients reflect that their cognitive skills like information processing and memory were some of the first indicators that something was amiss. MS patients should seek activities that continue to stimulate thinking in support of their cognitive health including reading, board games or art projects. In addition, some MS patients find the diagnosis and the lifestyle adjustments overwhelming which can lead to depression. Formal support groups, along with family and friends, can help patients stay connected to their feelings, priorities and overall values going through this transitional time.

For more information or to find a MS specialist near you, please visit rwjbh.org/medicalgroup and select find a doctor, where you can search by physician name, specialty or location.