1st March 2003
Real Living with Multiple Sclerosis
DURING MY TEENAGE and young-adult years, I was quite physically active. I rode horseback. I played badminton, basketball, tennis, and soccer. I skied and I cycled. Little did I know that my athletic days would be cut short by a slow, chronic decline of muscle strength caused by MS. By the time I was 45 years old, swimming seemed like an answer to strengthening and stretching my deteriorating muscles. I could move at my own pace and-- most important to me-keep up the appearance of an active, healthy lifestyle. I would keep my chronic, progressive disease a secret for a while longer, maybe forever.
Aquatic exercise gave me buoyancy and balance that I didn't have when I was out of the water. Every evening, I swam a quarter mile. My exercise routine took about an hour. I swam, showered, dressed, and drove home. I even had enough coordination and energy to make dinner. I felt sad at the end of September when the pool closed for the winter season. Fortunately, I could still swim indoors.
The following summer, my 60-minute routine increased to 90 minutes, but I still climbed in and out of the pool, showered, dressed, and drove home. When I considered the extra time it took to complete my swimming exercises, my body whispered, "You have MS!" I'd never been much of a swimmer and now my body mockingly yelled, "You can't swim!" For support, I used flotation devices like pool barbells and kick boards to keep my head above water. I believed that if I persisted and maintained my rigorous swimming schedule I would grow stronger. Miraculously, my disease would disappear.
Five years later, lifting myself in and out of the pool was a struggle. I no longer swam laps, but participated in water aerobics three times a week. I was the slowest student. By the end of that August, I filled the hour of water aerobics by creating my own movements. I had to cling to any helpful device to keep my head above water. I no longer showered at the club. I wore warm-ups home over my wet swimsuit, sat in the sun on the front porch to dry, then showered and dressed.
Eventually, my weaknesses demanded physical therapy. I was a referred to a physical therapist that knew about water exercise and had access to an indoor Olympic-sized swimming pool and hydraulic lift.
With the help of this lift, I'm hoisted in and out of the pool. At first, I was embarrassed to use the lift. To me, hanging like a "wet noodle" waiting to be lowered into the water advertised my illness. But imbalance and stiffness now dominated my once-athletic body. I couldn't deny my MS.
Body and Soul Refreshed
When I visit my mother and sister in Arizona, I schedule swimming sessions with Zane, an aquatic therapist. He uses water therapy exercises to help people with illnesses and injuries. The two of us danced the "watusi" for 2 years. I felt like a graceful porpoise as he cradled me in his arms like a baby, and we slowly waltzed up and down and around and around in the water. Now any motion must be slow and straight ahead with my head out of water or else I feel nauseated.
I once attempted a session with Zane at an indoor pool with a water temperature of 92 degrees. After 15 minutes, I lost all my muscle strength and had to be dragged from the pool. I need cool water-82 to 85 degrees. I once tried aquatic therapy in 79-degree water. Brrrr-- that was too cold! (I thought everyone with MS needed cool water, but recently I met a man with MS who prefers to sit in a warm whirlpool bath.)
Years of experience with varying water temperatures show me how sensitive my internal body thermometer has become. Constancy of water temperature prevents my body from overheating, and water's buoyancy gives me necessary support, making stretching and exercise easier.
Ten years have passed since I started water therapy. I'm grateful for the gift of time and patience of friends and family, a hydraulic lift, and cool water. Without helpers, I'd drown. Without a lift, I'd never climb in and out of a cool pool. I appreciate the way my body responds to aquatic exercise, even though I must continually reinvent the wheel. What is therapeutic one day may not be helpful the next. I no longer stand by myself, let alone swim, but when in a pool of cool water I can depend on stretching, range of motion, and increased flexibility with help from others.
I've become good buddies with my physical therapist. We spend hours during the summer eating, talking, and sunbathing, then cooling off by lowering me into the pool and stretching my ever-tightening muscles. When I'm in a cool pool with family and friends, my soul and body are refreshed and-- for a time-made well.
Editor's note: In general, people with MS should avoid heated
pools, hot baths, and whirlpool baths as elevated body temperature could
© 2003 Real Living with Multiple Sclerosis