The Deception Of Muscle Weakness
“Ugh, already?” is what I’m thinking as I reach over and swipe at my alarm clock to silence it. I then wipe the bleariness from my eyes and realize I need to get up and start my day, and I’m already running late. I hop out of bed and prepare to go grab one of those life-saving showers, the kind you absolutely need if you're going to be even close to productive in the morning. The kind that washes away the remaining deposits left by the Sandman the night before.
Falling flat on my face
As I begin to make my way to the washroom, I fall flat on my face. At that moment, I had no idea what happened. It was not until much later, after repeated falls throughout the day, that I would realize that my legs were sporadically becoming weak. This was all close to twenty years ago, when one of the most common symptoms of Multiple Sclerosis finally reared its ugly head in my life. Muscle weakness was my first truly noticeable symptom of Multiple Sclerosis and one that still plagues me to this day. It is a classic invisible symptom that creates enormous problems for those who suffer from it.
I thought I was overdoing it
In my very early 20s and in college, my first thought on those mornings, to be honest, was that I was still drunk from the night before (in what my friends and I like to refer to as “bonus time”). I hadn’t really had a lot to drink, but I was running myself ragged between school, work, hockey, and socializing. As the strength in my legs kept leaving me, I thought I was simply overdoing it. Too many activities, too much partying, even too much time in the gym (hockey and lifting weights were huge parts of my life at the time).
Dismissing the symptoms
There are so many MS symptoms that are incredibly easy to dismiss as something else. That particular day ended with me being carried off the ice at hockey practice and left me wondering what I had done wrong. It never crossed my mind that it could be a disease. I saw a doctor the next morning and by the end of the visit, my legs were so weak, I could no longer stand (and believe me, I tried, falling while attempting to walk out of the doctor’s office, ignoring his pleas to have tests run). That was the beginning of MS for me, the noticeable start anyway, that would lead to many tests and an eventual diagnosis.
What is muscle weakness?
When we talk about muscle weakness in Multiple Sclerosis, there are really two causes. One, when muscles become deconditioned due to lack of use (other symptoms forcing us to use our muscles less and less makes them weak due to lack of use). The second cause, and the one responsible in the story above, is when damage occurs to the nerves connecting the brain to the muscle in question. Because MS has caused the myelin around the nerve to be damaged, that signal to use the muscle become impaired and the muscle fails to flex and contract properly. The instructions from our brain simply aren’t getting there or aren’t completely getting there. So while the muscle feels very weak, no amount of strength training or conditioning will improve it. This communication issue can occur between the brain and any muscle in your body, depending on which nerves are damaged.
Muscle weakness is one of those symptoms that can be hard for people to understand. Looking back at my story, in the beginning, I was actually in the best shape of my life. I was very active and a beast in the weight room, but suddenly couldn’t lift my own body weight with my legs. I have had other scenarios as my MS has progressed where I’ve had trouble using my arms, often dropping items. It’s also been responsible for foot drop and a lot of my falls. To look at me though, you’d be very hard pressed to find anything wrong with me.
A common source of embarrassment
At times, I’ve looked and been in very good shape, yet have had trouble lifting items or standing and people look at me and are baffled. “Why isn’t this big guy helping move this couch? Is he lazy, or just an @$$hole?” It’s gotten me a lot of dirty looks in my life. As a bigger guy, suffering from muscle weakness can seem like an especially cruel symptom. Even when people know about MS muscle weakness and understand it, they can still have difficulty reconciling that information with what they see when they look at me. So not only does muscle weakness cause me to fall and drop items, it’s also a common source of embarrassment for me. As with many MS symptoms, there is such a wide gap between what people see and what’s actually going on with our bodies. The only way to start closing that gap is to keep spreading information and awareness.
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