Pumping Iron Helps Strengthen MS Patients

Muscles weakened by multiple sclerosis (search) appear to improve from a short-term strength training program.

Researchers reported improvements in muscle strength and function, and reductions in self-reported fatigue among eight patients participating in a two-month study evaluating resistance training.

Muscle weakness is a classic symptom in multiple sclerosis and is associated with fatigue. Fatigue affects approximately 65 percent of people with multiple sclerosis, say the researchers. It can significantly interfere with functional ability at home or work and can be a prominent symptom in a person who otherwise has minimal activity limitations.

Improving strength in people with multiple sclerosis can make daily activities less fatiguing.

The study has been expanded to include 20 patients with relapsing-remitting MS, half of whom will follow a progressive weight training program for 16 weeks, says researcher Lesley J. White, PhD, of the University of Florida.

“MS is a nerve and muscle wasting disease, so it seems reasonable that patients would benefit from strength training if there are no negative outcomes [associated with it],” White tells WebMD. “We found no downside to this type of exercise, and many potential benefits. But this was a very small trial, and more study is needed.”

Stronger Muscles, Less Disability

The study participants had disabilities ranging from minimal, meaning symptoms were few, to moderate, meaning that symptoms were severe enough to prevent them from working full time but mild enough to allow them to walk the equivalent of a city block without aid.

Training included moderate, supervised resistance exercises that focused on the legs, lower back, and abdomen for 30 minutes twice each week. At the end of eight weeks, the patients had significantly stronger muscles of the leg, were able to walk better, and reported significantly less fatigue and disability.

The findings were reported in last month’s issue of the journal Multiple Sclerosis.

Study participant Stella Sarkees says she believes her results were even more dramatic than those reported by the researchers. The 31-year-old mother of two believes weight training allowed her to reduce her dependence on drugs that control MS-related muscle spasms.

“I was taking one of the drugs three times a day, but by the end of the study I didn’t need to take it anymore,” Sarkees tells WebMD. “I can’t say for sure that it was the weight training, but I don’t know what else it would be.”

One Size Doesn’t Fit All

National Multiple Sclerosis Society spokesman Nicholas LaRocca, PhD, says it is not clear if weight training has unique benefits for multiple sclerosis patients that are not seen with other forms of exercise. Most research has focused on aerobic exercise.

Because symptoms differ dramatically from patient to patient, LaRocca stresses that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to exercising for those with multiple sclerosis. Patients are often advised to avoid exercise in very hot weather and to avoid exercising to the point of fatigue.

“People with MS have to be careful not to overdo it because fatigue is such a big problem,” he says.

Sarkees was diagnosed with MS at the age of 25 after an attack left her temporarily paralyzed. She says the benefits of weight training and other forms of exercise are immeasurable.

“There is no substitute for drug treatment, but exercise does help you physically and mentally,” she says, adding that exercising has empowered her by allowing her to focus on something other than her illness.

By Salynn Boyles, reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD

SOURCES: White, L. Multiple Sclerosis, December 2004; vol 10; pp 668-674. Lesley J. White, PhD, assistant professor, department of applied physiology and kinesiology, University of Florida, Gainesville. Nicholas LaRocca, PhD, director, Health Care Delivery and Policy Research, National Multiple Sclerosis Society. Stella Sarkees, MS patient and study participant; organizer, Living Well with MS support group, Gainesville, Fla.