Michelle Leighton is a 41-year-old lawyer and triathlete who has MS. She can’t feel her left foot and periodically loses vision in one eye and feeling in her left leg and hand. These symptoms don’t stop her from traveling the country to compete in races.
“The original theory was that exercise was bad for people with MS. Doctors would tell you, ‘Don’t go outside, don’t get overheated,’ ” Leighton said. “The new thinking says that is wrong. Stress and heat can exacerbate symptoms, but one of the primary problems with MS is fatigue. Doctors now think moderate exercise helps with fatigue. Sort of like people who don’t have MS have more energy when they exercise. MS can cause weakness and numbness. Exercise can lessen those symptoms.”
Elida Greinel, an advanced practice nurse at The University of New Mexico’s MS Specialty Clinic, said people with MS often get into a downward spiral of feeling fatigued and not exercising.
“But there is nothing wrong with your muscles. It’s the connection between your muscles and brain that is affected,” Greinel said.
When doing triathlons, Leighton pours water on herself regularly and wears wet jerseys to keep her core temperature down.
“I have the most trouble on the run,” she said. “If it’s really hot, I stick ice in my pockets. If it gets really bad, then my left leg collapses under me. It’s so hard to explain to people that you adapt to whatever is thrown your way. Either your deal with it or you sit around feeling sorry for yourself.”
MS is not contagious, nor is it curable. However, some drugs may slow the disease’s progression, or reduce the severity of flare-ups. Most people with MS have a normal life expectancy and do not become severely disabled. About a third will eventually be unable to walk, according to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. About half the people with MS develop some sort of basic cognitive problems with memory or clarity, but only 5 percent suffer mental problems severe enough to interfere with their lives in a big way, according to NMSS.