Fighting Back Against Multiple Sclerosis with Physical Therapy

Selma Blair
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At this year’s Oscars on February 24, actress Selma Blair made her first red carpet appearance since being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS) in 2018. Looking beautifully regal in a multicolored gown and cape, Blair also showed off a new accessory: a cane she now needs to help her walk.

Notoriously difficult to diagnose, MS affects nearly one million people in the U.S., many of whom who have lived unknowingly with the disease for many years.

“I have probably had this incurable disease for 15 years at least,” said Blair in an Instagram post. “And I am relieved to at least know.”

MS is a progressive condition that disrupts the flow of information within the brain and between the brain and body. Its cause is still unknown, and it presents differently in each person; symptoms can range from numbness and weakness to speech and swallowing problems.

Though there is no cure for MS, it is treatable with a combination of methods. We spoke to Amie Marie Flores Jasper, DPT, GCS, NCS of AdventHealth Sports Med and Rehab to learn how physical therapy can improve patients’ quality of life by helping them reach their full potential.

Making an MS Diagnosis

One of the things that makes MS so difficult to diagnose is the actual criteria for diagnosis.

According to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, several strategies are used to determine a diagnosis of MS and to rule out other possible causes of a person’s symptoms. These strategies include a careful medical history, a neurologic exam and various tests including magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), evoked potentials (EP) and spinal fluid analysis.

Ultimately, doctors are looking for evidence of damage in at least two separate areas of the central nervous system, which includes the brain, spinal cord and optic nerves.

The symptoms of MS can be different for each person, but may include:

  • Bladder and Bowel Problems
  • Clumsiness or Lack of Coordination
  • Dizziness
  • Fatigue
  • Heart-Related Problems
  • Muscle Spasms
  • Numbness and Tingling
  • Optic Neuritis and Other Eye Problems
  • Speech Problems
  • Tremors
  • Trouble Walking

Overcoming Disability Through PT

“Physical therapists help people with MS by addressing their symptoms at various levels,” says Amie, who works primarily in the outpatient setting. The treatment is customized to each patient’s individual needs, and the team takes care to work around their unique challenges.

“We perform range of motion and stretching to maintain their flexibility and prevent contractures. There are times when we recommend bracing and splinting to support and to protect their joints. We also provide graded muscular strengthening and endurance exercises in order to counteract their fatigue. We apply our interventions in a room temperature that is considerate of their heat intolerance.”

Though MS symptoms may vary, the AdventHealth Sports Med and Rehab team is experienced in addressing many potential issues and helping patients work to overcome them.

“One disabling symptom MS patients can have is what we call ataxia. This is a form of incoordination where a person loses control of the hands and/or feet. We’re trained and certified to use the balance vest (balance-based torso weighting) which has been found to improve coordination and balance. For patients who are not able to walk, we start them in the parallel bars and/or standing frame to facilitate their standing endurance. If we determine the need for a wheelchair, we also do wheelchair assessment.”

As MS often causes deterioration of function over time, much of the team’s treatment is focused on strength and stability to reduce the chance of future injury.

“We give balance training to improve patients’ balance and prevent falls. We also utilize evidence-based interventions in improving their walking speed, endurance and independence. We educate our patients on pacing, energy conservation techniques and fall prevention.”

Seeking Physical Therapy Treatment

If you’re dealing with an MS diagnosis, it’s worth asking your doctor if PT could be right for you. You will likely need a referral your first time.

“We can see patients with MS as direct access patients (no doctor referral) if they’ve been referred to PT in the past and are experiencing a relapse, but this is a case-by-case basis. Patients carrying government insurance need a doctor's referral to comply with insurance policies.”

Amie advised that the length of physical therapy treatment can range from 8 to 12 weeks, but is unique to each patient based on their situation.

Whole-Health Support for Your Best Life

“The primary focus of physical therapy is to improve each patient's independence and decrease the level of assistance from the caregiver,” says Amie. “Some of our patients’ success stories come from the reduction of their falls, being able to walk better, participate in a wellness program or be involved in a gym.”

Selma Blair, like many living with MS, is trying to cope with her symptoms while still maintaining full control of her personal and professional goals. She is optimistic and hopes her story inspires support and awareness rather than sadness or pity. “I am succeeding and love my life,” she has said.“I am in the thick of it, but I hope to give some hope to others. And even to myself. You can’t get help unless you ask.”

Although MS may affect your everyday activities, it doesn’t have to keep you from doing the things you love. We’re here to help support you in living your fullest life. Please visit our website to learn more about AdventHealth’s multiple sclerosis care, or find a Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation facility near you.

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