Yoga for Multiple Sclerosis

IMG_4715A student of mine came up to me the other day and mentioned to me that she was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis (MS). I knew a little bit about the “autoimmune disease” from my previous experience in healthcare, however not enough to speak intelligently to give an informed answer. While I am still doing a lot of reading on my own to understand the disease, I think it is important to shed light on the topic to the community of people that I work with.

Let’s begin by understanding what an autoimmune disease is. An autoimmune disease develops when your immune system, the system in your body which defends against illnesses, sicknesses, and diseases, begins to recognize normal healthy cells as foreign cells. As a result of the abnormal recognition of healthy cells, your immune system begins to attack itself. There are various types of autoimmune diseases that can affect one or many different types of body tissue. MS is on of those diseases.

So what is MS? According to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, “Multiple sclerosis (MS) is an unpredictable, often disabling autoimmune disease of the central nervous system that disrupts the flow of information within the brain, and between the brain and body.”(1) Nerves in our body pass along important information ranging from pain, pleasure, sensory, motor control, and various other feedback senses. Nearly all the nerves in the body (with an exception for C-Fibers) are surrounded by a fatty substance called myelin that helps to conduct the flow of the information – much like a power cord has a protective sheath surrounding it to protect the wires. The myelin sheath helps to insulate and conduct the flow of nerve connections along the nervous systems pathway. In an individual diagnosed with MS, the immune system starts to breakdown the myelin sheath, and instead of having the fatty surrounding layer of the nerve – the patient’s myelin sheath either deteriorates or the nerve becomes encased by scar tissue. The scar tissue can cause a variety of conditions in the patient ranging from weakness, blurred vision, imbalance, tingling, and a number of other symptoms depending on the location of the myelin breakdown. There are varying stages of MS ranging from mild, intermediate, to advanced states. The cause for MS is still unknown and researched is being conducted to determine the root cause/trigger. MS is however believed to be genetically related.

So how does yoga help with MS? For starters, often times when we are diagnosed with a sickness, illness, or we suspect that we are coming down with something – our mind begins to chatter and talk incessantly. Yoga is a tool that helps to calm and still the mind. But moving beyond just the stilling of the mind – I found a fascinating article that highlights a study done on patients diagnosed with MS.

Rutgers School of Health Related Professions performed a pilot study on the health benefits of yoga for individuals diagnosed with MS. The results on the 14 women that participated in the trial were positively encouraging. After an eight-week trial, the individuals who participated in the study were able to walk better for short distances and for longer periods of time. Additionally, the subjects “had better balance while reaching backwards, fine motor coordination, and were better able to go from sitting to standing.  Their quality of life also improved in perceived mental health, concentration, bladder control, walking, and vision, with a decrease in pain and fatigue.”(2) The trial conducted included yoga exercises, breathing, philosophy lessons, relaxation, and meditation. The subjects in the study were women who’s ages ranged from 34 to 64. “Some had been diagnosed with MS within the last two years while others had been living with the illness for up to 26 years. For 90 minutes, twice a week for two months, they practiced techniques and exercises that would improve their posture, help to increase stamina, and teach them how to relax and focus.”(3) Pretty amazing what the mind and body can do when it has the opportunity to focus even if it’s for 2 times – 90 minutes a week.

If you or anyone you know is diagnosed with MS – consult with your healthcare professional, but why not give yoga a try? Through talking with a number of individuals, I’ve found that yoga has a stigma and misconception associated with it. As a 500hr-RYT, I feel it’s important to dissolve that misconception by shining a light on the positive effects of a consistent yoga practice, in addition to doing research to promote taking an active stance on personal well-being. Looking at yoga as a value added component in the healthcare continuum, with the right instructor and the right blend of yoga classes, positive outcomes and personal healing is possible.

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