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MS Patients Who Trek Machu Picchu Say “Never Give Up”

How would you like to travel to Peru and climb Machu Picchu as part of a multiple sclerosis research study?

That’s exactly what nine Belgian men and women with MS did as part of a 10-month observational study and awareness project.  Results from the study, including reduced motor fatigue, are discussed in Multiple Sclerosis International (D’hooghe et al., 2014).

Staying active is important for overall health and well-being.  It is known that people with MS can become much less physically active as compared to healthy individuals of the same age, even when they experience limited or mild neurological disability.  Persons with MS may feel less capable of accomplishing physically demanding tasks or may lack a strong belief in their ability to reach goals.

In the context of an awareness project to promote physical activity and participation in MS, researchers investigated the impact of training for and participating in a unique expedition to Machu Picchu, the famous site of an ancient Inca city in the Andes mountains of Peru.  The 5-day Salkantay expedition took place in September 2012.

Neurologists and physiotherapists in Belgium recruited ten individuals with mild or moderate neurological disability due to MS and a high degree of motivation to participate in this study.  As these individuals would serve as ambassadors to the MS community as part of this awareness project, one woman dropped out of the study because she didn’t want her diagnosis to become widely known.

The nine participants who completed the study included 6 women and 3 men with relapsing MS.  Participants were between 28 and 49 years of age (median: 42) and had been diagnosed with MS between 3 to 24 years (median: 9).  Expanded Disability Status Scale (EDSS) scores, as assessed by a neurologist, ranged from 1 to 4 (median: 3) at baseline.  The three participants with EDSS 4 presented with cardiovascular risk factors (two with smoking and one with obesity).  Five participants used MS disease-modifying therapy.

Information regarding medical events, relapses, and self-reported neurological worsening was documented throughout the 10-month observational study, extending from 6 months before the expedition to 4 months afterwards.  Validated patient-reported outcome (PRO) measures were used to assess fatigue, self-efficacy for exercise, walking abilities, and illness perception during the training period and following the expedition.  Based on initial exercise tests, each participant received a personalized training schedule to prepare for the 45.5 kilometer hike.

During the study, minor events were observed in two thirds of the participants, all of whom either had moderate disability, cardiovascular risk factors, and/or comorbidities (rheumatoid arthritis, narcolepsy) at baseline.  The three participants with mild disability and no cardiovascular risk factors or comorbidities were free of medical and neurological events.  The relapse rate during the study did not markedly differ from the relapse rate in the previous year.  Seven relapses occurred in five participants, three of whom used immunomodulatory drugs.

At the end of the study, motor fatigue was significantly reduced, especially in participants with mild disability (EDSS < 4 at baseline).  Cognitive fatigue, self-efficacy, and self-reported walking abilities did not change significantly.  Perceived illness consequences, identity, and concerns appeared to decline over time.

Authors note that any combination of factors – motivation, participation, professional coaching, social support, illness beliefs, reduced anxiety and depression – may have played a role in reducing fatigue before and/or increasing fatigue after the expedition.  Social interaction may also affect the perception of fatigue.

Participants described the Machu Picchu expedition as physically and mentally taxing.  Several subjects reported a less dominant perception of MS as they expressed having a life with MS.  Although most participants reported feeling stronger, some of them also expressed the hard confrontation with limitations due to MS.

The experience of well-being when being physically active, the support from family, friends, and MS community, and professional coaching were experienced as very helpful and encouraging.  The messages to other people with MS included advices to be physically active, to be open for new experiences, and to never give up.

Lisa Emrich | Follow me on Facebook |Follow me on Twitter | Follow me on Pinterest

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

  1. D’hooghe MB, Feys P, Deltour S, et al. Impact of a 5-Day Expedition to Machu Picchu on Persons with Multiple Sclerosis. Mult Scler Int. Vol. 2014, Article ID 761210, 9 pages, 2014. doi:10.1155/2014/761210.


  • Laura Kolaczkowski
    5 years ago

    I had a mixed reaction when I read that study – first was, how cool, I would love to go there but I know it would be physically demanding if not impossible. That would be whether I had MS or not because it is an extremely difficult trek to make.

    But then the other side of this kicked in and I wonder why on earth they would study this in the first place other than a researcher really wanted to go to Machu Picchu. It is a study with such extremes it would be difficult to replicate and I had trouble relating their study results to my everyday life. Even trying to think of an extreme activity I might do, I could not make the thought of this Macchu Picchu research match up.

    The MS awareness component for me was also a stretch but I don’t live in Belgium/Europe so perhaps they got some public recognition there. Making the world aware of MS in unique ways to grab the attention of the public takes some out-of-the-box thinking these days, and this certainly fits this category. I did look it up and see that the MS Society in Canada is offering the chance to fundraise and go to Macchu Picchu in 2015.

    All that said, I’m glad they made it to Peru and did this trek, it had to have been empowering in many ways.

    best, Laura

  • Lisa Emrich moderator author
    5 years ago

    It is a strange ‘study’ isn’t it? Although the study itself states that it wasn’t sponsored, the website does list partners/sponsors. It also appears that the MS Society in Flanders launched their first MS Walk in connection with the publicity for the Trek. Although stories of motivation and inspiration have changed somewhat in the media, there’s nothing like a ‘climbing the mountain’ story. 🙂

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