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Learning to Walk Again with MS

By Matt Cavallo

Currently, I am experiencing my second bout of walking difficulties because of multiple sclerosis. My first issue with walking started in 2005 with an acute onset of transverse myletis. During that time, I was hospitalized and nonfunctional from the waist down. Not only was I nonfunctional and unable to walk, but my inner voice convinced me I would never walk again. 

During that hospital stay, the physical therapists tried to get me up and walking but there was one incident with a physical therapist that cemented my belief that I would never walk again. I am 6 feet 2 inches tall and more than 200 pounds. The physical therapist was a woman who seemed to be a foot smaller and weigh a 100 pounds less than me.  She got me up out of my hospital bed and we made it to the door, but my legs came out from under me and I started to fall. She tried to stop me from falling and braced herself, but I was too big so we both went crashing to the floor. This caused quite the commotion. Nurses and doctors came running to our aide. I was fine and nothing was bruised besides my ego. I was more concerned about the therapist that I had just squished. When I discharged from the hospital a few days later, I was in a wheelchair so I feared that was my fate. I had to be carried into my house and I relied on my wife to help me get around. Luckily, I never fell and squished her.

Fast forward a couple of weeks, I started aquatic therapy, which gave me hope. There, I worked with a physical therapist in the pool to learn how to walk again. Once I graduated from the pool, we moved our sessions to land and I continued learning to walk again in the physical therapy office. Within a couple of weeks, I went from needing a person to help me walk, to walking with the assistance of a cane, to not needing any assistance at all. Finally, after about 90 days in total from the initial onset of symptoms, I could walk again. 

In 2016, I had another relapse that affected my walking. This relapse was isolated to the right side of my body. With the left side still working, I could do a zombie walk where my left leg would walk normally and I would drag my right leg behind me. I have never fully recovered from this relapse.  I was not as diligent with physical therapy after this relapse for a variety of reasons. I was also 11 years older. Because of the bounce back I had with my other relapses, I assumed that would be the case this time around, too, but it hasn’t been. While I am a bit better, I am still dragging my right leg a bit six years later.

Then something changed, and it had nothing to do with walking. Earlier this year, I lost 45 pounds through medical weight loss. I had tried dieting on my own and that failed, but when I enrolled in a medical weight loss program and had a doctor following my progress, I stayed accountable. So, I started thinking to myself, is there a way to improve my walking using a similar accountability technique?

That is when I decided to enroll in a personal training program at the gym. Fellow MS Focus contributor and MS Fitness Expert, David Lyons, taught me about something called neuroplasticity and how physical exercise can help. Neuroplasticity is defined as the ability of the nervous system to change its activity in response to intrinsic or extrinsic stimuli by reorganizing its structure, functions, or connections after injuries, such as a stroke or traumatic brain injury. In layman’s terms, you can retrain your brain after an incident like I experienced with my MS relapse

So much like my medical weight loss where I worked with a doctor, I just started with a personal trainer at the gym. While it has only been a few sessions, I am already seeing improvement in my walking. Rebuilding the mind-body connection that was interrupted by my MS relapse is going to take time, dedication, and personal accountability. I will report back next month on how it is going, but it looks to be promising. It is baby steps, but I am learning to walk again.