MS and the Battle Against Fluctuating Temperatures
It’s a brisk late winter evening as my wife and I join friends for happy hour at one of our favorite local watering holes. As we sit and greet our friends, my wife gives me that look. That look that says, “are you too hot?” I give a slight head shake indicating no, as, using my shirt sleeve, I try to casually wipe my brow of the now excessive amount of sweat that has built up on it. The whole time I hope our friends don’t notice, that despite it being frigid out and not wearing a coat, I am still already overheated and sweating in many more places than just my brow. This type of scenario plays itself out almost daily, as I deal with one of my disease’s most common problems, temperature sensitivity. For many of us suffering with multiple sclerosis, adapting to fluctuating temperatures is a full time job. The slightest change in our body temperature can wreak havoc on us, pushing symptoms that may seem dormant right to the forefront.
Why warmer temperatures are a problem for MS
It is somewhat common knowledge (in as much as anything MS-related can be considered common) that those suffering from MS have problems dealing with warmer temperatures. There was even a time not long ago when those suspected of having MS were put into hot baths to determine if they had the disease. This worsening of symptoms due to an increase in temperature is often known as Uhthoff’s Sign, named after a German ophthalmologist who noticed the worsening of vision when those suffering from optic neuritis, a common MS symptom, had their temperatures raised. It is believed that this happens because demyelinated nerves have increased problems conducting electrical signals. That is why we see prior symptoms come forward; those areas that have already been damaged are the ones at issue. The good thing is that, typically, if we bring our temperature back down, the symptoms will subside again. Many with MS, myself included, will go to great lengths to avoid the heat because of this.
It's not just summer that's an issue
Avoiding warm temperatures can be hard. In the summertime, when everyone is hot, it’s easy to rely on devices like cooling vests or to try to stay in an air conditioned room. But what about when it’s hot for us and not those around us? For me, the winter time can be very hard because most places are heated. I’d be better off wearing shorts and a t-shirt everywhere during the winter, but that looks a little weird. Still, I try to dress in light fabrics, because I know most places I go will have the heat cranked up. No matter how I dress though, if the place is too warm, I have to leave.
While the dangers of warm temperatures and MS are talked about often, cold temps can be an issue for those with MS as well. Many experience a worsening of symptoms when they are cold, particularly with regards to spasm and pain-related symptoms. I’ve spoken to many an MS patient that rely heavily on bundling up to keep these issues from jumping to the surface.
Sometimes it just takes a few degrees
Avoiding extreme hot and cold temperatures is a way of life for many suffering from multiple sclerosis. However, what I have been noticing the past few years, any swing in temperature seems to cause some issue. The story I started this article with, how I broke into a sweat not long after stepping inside, that wasn’t necessarily because it was very warm in there, it was because it was a few degrees different than what I had been in. Sometimes, a couple degrees swing is all it takes for me to start having symptoms show. I shook my head no to her in that story, not because I didn’t want to draw more attention to me, but because I knew my speech would be slurred if I spoke. Typically, if the temperature swing is small, I just need time to adjust, and then I will go back to the way I was, however, that is not always the case. This is one of the more annoying issues I have and it’s one I can’t even escape in my own home. No matter what we do, some rooms are still different temps than others, so just switching rooms in my own home can at least temporarily give me slurred speech, vision problems, pain, spasms, and arm and leg weakness. Many times when I fall in my own home, it’s because of this very issue: I’ve warmed up slightly and my legs don’t work anymore. We still try, to keep the house at a pretty constant temp though. It’s a necessity that becomes costly, relying on both the heater and air conditioning much of the year. We don’t really have the luxury of letting the house come up or down to a temperature slowly.
The worst times of the year for me
Having problems with temperature changes means that the spring and fall tend to be the worst times for me. Where I live in the mid-atlantic area, temperature and weather conditions can fluctuate a lot during those seasons. Being cold one day then hot the next really causes me problems. My wife even looks at the weather and laments when she sees there will be rapid weather changes. I should also note that most of my full relapses have occurred during these transitional seasons. This doesn’t exactly fit into the “only prior symptoms are affected” theory, but I suppose it could all be coincidence too. In addition, it has always seemed interesting to me that the only sustained near symptom-free stretch I’ve had was when living in a very steady climate out west.
What can we do?
So how can we deal with these temperature sensitivity issues? For warm temps, cooling devices are very helpful. To battle the issues arising from cold, dressing properly can be very important. But dealing with the small increases and decreases that we encounter daily, in any season, can be very tricky. As much as we try to keep a consistent temperature, whatever we do, it’s not really going to be 100% effective. Knowledge is power though, and the more people that we can get to understand our problems with temperature sensitivity, the better off we’ll be. It’s important to share with our family and friends that temperature swings can be problematic to us. As always, I’d love to hear from others that suffer from temperature issues so please feel free to comment. As a community, together, sharing ideas, is when we are our strongest!
Does anyone else in your family have MS?