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MS and Heat

By Matt Cavallo

You can sense it. Summer is coming. The sun is setting later in the day and the days are getting longer. To your friends and family, the summer means outdoor barbeques, beach days, and other fun outdoor activities. To you, living with multiple sclerosis, the summer can spell doom. Why is it that those of us living with MS suffer from heat intolerance? The answer actually dates back to the 1800s.
Long before MRIs and spinal taps, doctors would diagnose a person with MS with the hot bath test. In the 19th and 20th century, doctors would put people that they suspected of having MS in a hot bath for a period of time and then observe how they acted when they got out. If a person exhibited worse neurological symptoms as a result of the bath, then that person was diagnosed with MS.
In 1890, Wilhelm Uhthoff first noticed that people suffering with optic neuritis would get worse when they exercised. It was later determined that exercise was not the cause of the symptoms getting worse, rather that it was the heat and rise in body temperature that made the symptoms worse. The correlation between heat and the worsening of MS symptoms would later become known as Uhtoff’s Phenomenon.
While Uhtoff’s Phenomenon focused solely on optic neuritis and vision problems, a 2011 study showed that heat could exacerbate other symptoms such as fatigue, balance, pain, and problems urinating. The study also reported that up to 80 percent of MS patients reported some form of heat intolerance. The rise in body temperature causes a pseudo-exacerbation, which is temporary flare-up of MS symptoms due to another medical event such as illness, change in temperature or infection.
As a person living with MS in Arizona, it was critical that I learn how to manage my symptoms in the desert heat. Here are some of the strategies that I use to help manage my symptoms during the summer months.

Tips to manage your MS in the summer heat:

  1. Stay hydrated – This cannot be overstated and should be on this list more than one time. Drinking water is not only a healthy choice, but helps regulate your core temperature.

  2. Change your schedule – The peak heat times during the day are typically from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. If you need to get something done, try to schedule it for earlier in the day. For example, I walk my dog at 5 a.m. in the morning before the sun comes up because that is the coolest time of the day. If you plan on exercising or working outside in the summer, get it done early so that you can escape from the sun by the time it gets too hot.
  3. Stay air conditioned – While air conditioning is expensive, it is worth the cooling relief that you’ll experience. Whether it is your home, car, or office, try your best to stay air conditioned in the summer to keep your core temperature down.
  4. Eat cooling foods – Foods like bananas, lentils, and grapes are astringent, meaning they help you absorb water thereby cooling your core temperature over a longer period of time.
  5. Wear a cooling vest or headband – If you must be outside during the high heat times of the day, there are several cooling devices that you can wear to help keep your body temperature down. If you cannot afford a cooling vest, contact MS Focus: the Multiple Sclerosis Foundation for programs available that may help you get a cooling vest free of charge.
  6. Eat a Popsicle or ice cube – It sounds simple, but if you feel like you can’t cool down, popping an ice cube or popsicle in your mouth provides immediate cooling relief. Follow that up with a tall, ice-cold glass of water and you are on your way to regulating your core temperature!
There is no way to avoid the summer heat but by following these tips, you can keep your cool and keep your MS in check.