Exercises for overall health and balance
In recent years, balancing exercises like yoga and tai chi have become extremely popular. These exercises help people relax, get stronger and have fun.
But for people with multiple sclerosis (MS) these balancing exercises may actually be a treatment for their condition.
“People with MS struggle with balance and may even fall at times,” says Dr. Megan Esch, a fellowship-trained neurologist specializing in MS care. “Balancing and strength-building exercises are one method of treatment that can help. These exercises can help the brain adapt in spite of MS.”
Multiple sclerosis, defined
Multiple sclerosis is a relatively rare “immune-mediated” disease (similar to an autoimmune disease).
“With MS, your body attacks its own myelin, the fatty layer that protects your nerves,” explains Dr. Esch. “After destroying the myelin, the body will attack the nerve endings as well. This damage to the nerve fibers disrupts the messages from the brain to the rest of the body. This can make simple tasks such as walking difficult.”
People with MS may notice dizziness, pain, fatigue, vision loss, slurred speech and impaired motor skills. Their symptoms can cause them to lose balance, fall and even be temporarily unable to move.
Multiple sclerosis can be mild, moderate or severe. With mild multiple sclerosis, you may get dizzy or have problems balancing. But if you have severe multiple sclerosis, you might experience incontinence, have a hard time swallowing and eating and feel moody or get depressed.
Doctors aren’t sure what causes MS, but it is likely caused by environmental factors that affect people who are already genetically susceptible. Environmental factors may include smoking, lack of vitamin D and exposure to the Epstein-Barr virus—the same virus that causes mononucleosis, amongst many others
How exercises can help with MS symptoms
"Exercise has been shown to lessen fatigue, improve balance and stability, and boost cognitive function in those with MS,” says Dr. Esch. “These exercises include balancing and walking on different surfaces with and without head movements and eyes open and closed. They can help affected patients feel steadier, reduce fatigue and help decrease dizziness. They can also improve muscle strength, bladder and bowel control and heart health.”
In one study, people with MS were asked to take a balance test. Most people scored 62 or 63 points out of 100 (compared to 90, the benchmark for healthy adults). After six weeks of these exercises, patients scored 73 points on average. By the end of the study, the group who did not exercise scored 66 points on average, while the exercise group scored 75 points on average.
When people with MS exercise, they tend to have fewer relapses or flare-ups. They also have fewer lesions, which are the scars from myelin damage that block messages from the brain. Over time, exercise can lead to slower disease progression and can lower the risk of complications.
How to get started
If you’d like to start doing balance exercises, talk to your doctor or physical therapist. They can recommend exercises that are appropriate for your stage of MS.
Here are some common types of exercises for people with MS:
- Balancing on different surfaces while walking
- Head movements while walking
- Opening and closing your eyes while walking
- Eye movement exercises for visual stability
- Yoga and yoga poses
- Tai chi and tai chi poses
- Water aerobics
- Arm and leg lifts
Work with your doctor or physical therapist to choose exercises that are comfortable for you. Do not push yourself too hard or you may injure yourself. A consistent exercise routine is better than a vigorous one for MS patients.
Megan Esch, MD, is a fellowship-trained neurologist who specializes in treating patients with multiple sclerosis. To book an appointment with Dr. Esch or another Geisinger neurologist, please visit Geisinger.org or call 1-800-675-2401.