Heat and MS
It was a beautiful day by anyone’s standards, except a runner.
72, mostly sunny, perfect early summer day in June. But to me, it felt 90 degrees and scorching. It was 2013 and I was running the B.A.A 10K. I was in the middle of my running “career” and onto my 2nd or 3rd 10k. Everything started out just fine, music was pumping in my ears, adrenaline flowing through my legs,
“I got this” I thought.
Until I hit Commonwealth Ave.
For those of you unfamiliar with Boston, Commonwealth Ave is a fairly straight, uncovered, stretch of pavement. And this was where the majority of the 6.2 miles were ran.
It got hot. It got hot, real quick.
One of the most well known symptoms of Multiple Sclerosis, at least to us MSers, is heat intolerance. Being exposed to heat, whether it is from being outdoors, being in a hot shower or exercising, can make MS symptoms temporarily worse, which is called a pseudo-exacerbation. Once our bodies return to normal temperature, the symptoms dissipate and return back to their normal state. During a pseudo-exacerbation there is no actual disease progression taking place, however, while the symptoms are being felt, they are very real!
In fact, back in the day before MRI’s and modern medicine, doctors used to use the “hot bath test” to diagnose MS. In this test, individuals who were suspected of having MS were put in a hot bath to see if their symptoms increased. As unpleasant as an MRI is, I’m sure that would be much worse.
Doctors believe a pseudo-exacerbation occurs because heat causes the nerves, which are already are damaged, to perform their functions even less effectively. When body temperature increases, even by a quarter or half a degree, the electrical signals sent between demyelinated nerves are even further negatively impacted.
Some of the most common symptoms that individuals experience when in the heat are:
- Blurry Vision (Uhthoff’s Phenomenon)
- Cognitive Difficulties
Strategies to Manage the Heat
Sometimes being in the heat is unavoidable, so being prepared is the best thing you can do! Here are some tips for beating the heat:
- AC is your friend! Staying in the AC during times of high heat or humidity is sometimes a must. Or having a nicely air conditioned house or room to come back to is important. When I didn’t have central air my doctor gave me the hint to make one room an “AC oasis” that is cool 24/7, which should be your bedroom, so you can sleep comfortably too.
- Have ice water, or popsicles on hand all the time. Ice water is one of the fastest ways to bring your core temp down asap.
- Have a personal fan/personal water mister that you can bring with you EVERYWHERE.
- When working out, be smart about your environment. Chose indoor areas that have AC. If you must workout outside, pick morning or evening times when it is cooler.
- Try cooler/cold showers to bring down your body temp too. I really like this after a workout, this helps to bring my body back down to a normal temp quite quickly. If you have a hard time tolerating a cold shower, you can also dip your feet into a cold bathtub or run your arms under cold water or splash your face with cold water as well.
- There are tons of personal cooling vests or articles of clothing that you can purchase that can help for longer term cooling as well. I have a cooling head wrap that I used for running, that I somewhat liked. It started out cold, but would warm up quickly, especially if I was super warm.
- Be smart about your clothing. If you’re at home and feel comfortable, don’t be afraid to ditch some clothes! Sometimes I’ll hang out in just a long t-shirt at home. It’s amazing what that does for your body temp. When I’m out, I’ll wear flowy shirts and loose shorts as well.
- Get shady. When doing outdoor activities, try to find a spot where you can hide in the shade. It may not seem like it, but shade can feel like a huge temperature difference and can make being outside tolerable.
My hubby and I like to go to the beach all the time. Like one summer, we went on a beach tour and went to a new beach each weekend. So to say I’m “used” to the heat is an understatement, but it still gets to me.
What I’ve found the most helpful for beating the heat is having a place to run back to that provides shade, whether that is an awesome beach tent or big tree, something that provides relief from the sun’s rays is key. I’ve found that sometimes in the shade it feels 10 degrees cooler than when in the sun. I also like to have a cooler with ice water with me. Yes, this means lugging a cooler to the beach, but in order to make my beach time fun, this is a necessity. My last thing that is key? Running in and out of the water. Obviously this isn’t always do-able if you’re not at the beach, so bringing some way to apply cold water, either a personal mister or cold towel or even having a mini AC handy is important.
By the time I hit the race turn around point, I felt like I was going to pass out. Looking back on it, I had no business finishing this race. But, I’m stubborn. And I was even more stubborn back then.
Thankfully, my sister ran 99.9% of my races with me, and she was right there by my side. She didn’t know it, but she gave me the strength to keep going and in my mind, was there in case I passed out.
By the time we hit the home stretch, I told her to go on ahead (she was great at sprinting to the finish) and I came behind about a minute later. My hubby (boyfriend at the time) was also there, at the finish line. He took one look at me, yelled at the medics, “GRAB HER”.
I was stumbling to the finish, barely able to see, my legs were numb and tingling (at the same time, totally weird feeling) and I couldn’t feel most of my body.
Against my overheated, belligerent will, I was thrown in a wheel chair and carted off to the medical tent. I fought the entire time, stating I was “fine” and I just needed to “walk it off” (ha!).
My core temperature was 106 degrees, I was dizzy, confused and fighting the nurses. They tossed me in an ice bath for what seemed like an eternity (to me, as well as my then boyfriend and sister) and I thankfully didn’t have to go to the hospital. I think I told them I had MS, and that everything was much worse because of the heat, but I don’t really remember too much else of the conversation.
Obviously both the act of running and the heat got to me that day. But I think the heat was the most impacting factor. I was a well conditioned runner at the time and the distance had previously given me no issues on 50 degree days.
The only things gained from the experience was a new shirt and a healthy respect for rising temperatures.