Heating Up & Cooling Down With MS

Take a look at the calendar and you can see we still have a few weeks of fun in the sun before summer will begin to fade.  I used to love the sun and heat, and didn’t think much of being out enjoying it and all the summer activities, but now that I live with Multiple Sclerosis and heat sensitivity, that has changed.  I love the fall and spring, but winter has become my new favorite season – the colder the better for me!

What is it about MS and heat? The majority of us find that our bodies slow or stop functioning with the slightest bit of overheating- this was first discussed back in the late 1800’s when Wilhelm Uhthoff proposed that exercise caused the temporary loss of vision for people with MS.  It wasn’t long before other scientists found Uhthoff was just slightly off from his idea and that is was actually the overheating of the body, which can often occur with any activity such as exercise, that causes the conduction of nerve signals to slow or even temporarily stop.

My initial examination with my neurologist before I was diagnosed with MS, was somewhat infuriating.  He asked if I were outside and got overheated, what would I do?  I replied I would go inside – I thought that was a reasonable answer.  It wasn’t what he wanted to know, obviously, because he asked again -  if I was outside and got hot and couldn’t go inside, what  would I do?  To which I told him I would find shade under a tree and rest. He came at the question one more time, but I still wasn’t understanding that he wanted to know how does my body react to the heat.  At that time I wasn’t familiar with Uhthoff’s symptoms and the logical response to me was if I got hot I would find a way to cool off.

In between seeing this doctor and my follow-up appointment for my LP (lumbar puncture), we took a long weekend  to visit friends in South Carolina, not exactly the coolest spot to go to in mid-August.  We took an afternoon hike around one of their lovely nature preserves and I realized in the 90+ degrees, my body was no longer working right.  It was all I could do to drag myself back to the car, turn the ignition on and the air conditioning running full force.  My right leg had pretty much stopped moving and when I started the car, I didn’t realize I had the gas pedal pressed fully to the floor.  Fortunately the car was in parking gear, otherwise we would have gone flying off the ledge of the parking lot into the lake below. My brain barely registered that the sound of a revved to the max engine was coming from my car.  It took about an hour or so after to regain control of my legs and stop the feeling of my body being made of jelly.

That was one of my first  MS  Eureka!! moments – I finally understood what that question meant when the neurologist kept asking me what I would do if I got overheated.  Wouldn’t it be great if we could just keep ourselves cocooned in a cool environment and not worry about overheating? That’s not realistic and I’ve found a few ways to brace myself for the heat – my short list includes:

  • Afternoons are a great time for a break (think nap!) so plan outdoor activities and errands for early in the day or later in the evening –never in the middle of the day when it is hottest.
  • Going naked or wearing my bathing suit in public isn’t acceptable, so I wear light weight and light colored clothes, and put on a hat if in the direct sunlight.
  • That ice cold beer or frozen margarita might taste good, but alcohol makes the heat worse - drink lots of water and other hydrating beverages.
  • Neck coolers may not look so fashionable but they can make a big difference.  You can make your own if you don’t have one and create your own fashion statement.  Here are easy instructions that involve a small bit of fabric and a spoon of the crystals used to absorb water for potted plants
  • No time or talent to make a neck cooler? Another quick idea is to place in the freeze a wet sponge in a Ziploc plastic bag. Use this frozen sponge as a portable ice pack to hold on your body. You can do the same thing with freezing a bottle of water, but it is less flexible than the sponge.
  • If I have to go out in the heat, I try to take a shower to cool off my entire body before heading out- it takes longer for my cool body to overheat.  I will also do the same when I return if I am extremely hot and need to get relief in a hurry.
  • Eating the right foods can also help in cooling – all those fresh fruits and vegetables that are available in the summer contain lots of water, which helps to cool our bodies.

MultipleSclerosis.Net asked readers to share their stay cool tips and how they cope with the fatigue that comes with the heat.  I’m sure many of you have other ways you stay cool and I hope you’ll share those ideas. It is possible to step out of the air conditioning and join the rest of the world in summer activities for brief periods of time, it just takes advance planning and making wise choices. Stay cool!

Wishing you well,


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