The Truth about MS and Wheelchairs

“My Personal Insights”

If you asked anyone “What do you think of when you hear the term MS?” the answer usually includes “wheelchairs.”

When my first relapse happened back in 1980, a picture of a person with MS in a wheelchair was always shown, even by the MS Society. Perhaps it was to help with fundraising, or perhaps it was to a way to draw attention to a disease that was not usually heard of.

Whatever the case, it did create a picture of “this is MS” and the huge fear of living a life in a wheelchair. That vision still exists today, despite the advances in awareness and research that have occurred. Despite the reality that MS involves many other neurological symptoms in addition to a life in a wheelchair.

I know much about this because I am one of those MSers who ended up in a wheelchair. And I want to speak up about MS and wheelchairs to try to correct that picture and reduce that fear for anyone dealing with MS.

1. Over a lifetime, only 20-25% end up in a wheelchair. That was the statistic in 1980, and it probably is less today due to the development of the disease-modifying drugs that have been available since the mid-90’s.

I have many friends who have had MS over 30 years, and I am the one of a few who is in a wheelchair permanently. Now, of course many patients use walkers or canes since MS and mobility problems usually go hand-in-hand, but few are not hunched over paralyzed, completely debilitated in a wheelchair.

2. A person can have a quality life living in a wheelchair, though admittedly the limitations it causes can be frustrating. Again, I know.

I manage my MS well and despite having lived permanently in a wheelchair these past thirteen years, I have had a happy life. I travel, swim, volunteer, take care of many household responsibilities… And the other MSers I know who are in my position would agree their lives are full and active.

Having MS certainly is not a cakewalk, but it certainly isn’t the end of the world either. There are far worse things in life. Plus, I must add that there are other MS symptoms that can be difficult, such as vision loss and overwhelming fatigue. However, so many of these symptoms can be successfully managed to minimize their interfering effects.

3. Wheelchairs should be viewed as a friend, not the enemy. So, you ask, what the heck does THAT mean? I’ll explain.

At many MS events and online, I see and hear people with mobility issues struggling with trying to walk without a walking aid, or one that is not suitable for them. Part of it is due to vanity, or part of it is a desire to not “give in” to MS.

• Is vanity worth the risk of falling down and getting hurt? In truth, I purposely started using a wheelchair full-time even though I could walk with a walker for 15-30 steps. The years on steroids, the osteoporosis, and my age put me at great risk for breaking an arm or leg. Instead, I used the swimming pool to walk and exercise safely.

• Before I went into the chair permanently, I used a power chair on a part-time basis around the house and scooters that were available in stores for customers. It is a tremendous help in reducing fatigue and getting more things done. This was a great morale booster. In addition, the pain from overused muscles and poor posture was lessoned substantially.

I wasn’t giving into my MS at all. There are many persons with MS that will use a scooter or wheelchair because of fatigue, weakness, balance problems, or to assist with conserving energy.

4. The majority of people with MS do not become severely disabled. Three out of four people who have MS remain able to walk, though many will need an aid, such as a cane or crutches.*

Before I decided to post this article, I talked to a couple of good friends of mine to ask them about the content of this article. They, like me, are the “Ol’ MS Vets”, i.e. who have lived with MS for decades and also have been involved with the MS community for the same amount of time. We know this disease because we have lived with it and been continuously involved with its research. 

We are a reliable resource you can trust.
Author/MS Counselor/Living with MS

*Note: This statistic is listed in many reputable resources. The Nat’l MS Society used to use this percentage until several years ago, but changed it to 35% based on some study. I question their revision, as well as the study, because with the numerous DMDs that have been/are available, the percentage of MSers in wheelchairs permanently should have declined, not increased.

Unsteady Gait: Time for a Cane?

“Thoughts and Choices”

April 9, 2014

Many people with MS will begin to experience walking problems due to emerging symptoms like balance, coordination, fatigue and weakness. The typical first type of walking aid is a cane.

The thought of using a cane can be difficult. Some believe they are “giving in” to MS. Others think it makes them feel or look old. Or, that a cane makes one “stick out” and draws attention to them.

People who think this way need a positive perspective, from somebody who has “been in their shoes.” Using a cane:

• Is accepting MS and its gait problems, not giving into it.
• Helps keep you walking, reducing fatigue and improving posture.
• Is a safety net against falls and injuries.
• Draws no more attention to you than a wobbly gait or drunk-like walk.
• Transfers an “invisible” symptom into “visible” one. (A BIG benefit for MSers!)
• Can actually give you a classy, distinguished look!

We use eyeglasses to help us see, so why not use canes to help us walk? When I began using a cane at the age of thirty, I learned all of these things. At that time 28 years ago, I was able to find four different kinds of canes to match my outfits and walk with style.

Now there is a terrific website called Walking Canes . There are oodles of styles, colors, types and accessories to choose from. This site also has an MS Guide, researched and written by Dr. Elizabeth Lewis, a well-respected and experienced physician.

So check it out, and also check out a previous post I wrote entitled “MS and Walking Problems” .

A final note: If this is your first cane purchase, it is important you talk with a physical therapist or qualified health professional to show you how to properly walk with a cane and how it should be adjusted to fit your physique.

Debbie Petrina
Author/Counselor/Living with MS

MS and Walking Problems

“Falling Down”

May 7, 2012

Most people with MS will fall down.  As careful as you try to be, it happens when
you least expect it.

I fell down two weeks ago and I am still recovering.  As I was getting up from my recliner, my knees suddenly buckled and I landed right on my tailbone.  It was probably a good thing that my back hit the end table as I fell.  I think it helped break the fall of dead weight hitting the floor and possibly preventing a broken bone.

Who knows?  I may have a slight fracture because my butt still hurts when I sit, but it is slowly getting better.  I held off from going to the doctor because the thought of X-rays and who knows what else a hospital would do was not something I wanted to deal with.  I didn’t want the added stress of all that added to the stress of the fall, plus all the germs I would be exposed to at the hospital.

I didn’t know if that was a smart decision at the time, but after the fact, in my own mind it was. The truth is, if I had been in severe pain or exceptionally immobile in a new way, I would have gone for a medical evaluation immediately or a day or two later.

There are so many symptoms of MS that make walking precarious, and it is probable that almost all people with MS have at least one of them.  Fatigue.  Dragging feet.  Weakness. Ataxia.  Toe or foot drop.  Poor coordination and balance.  Spasticity.
Vertigo. Medications, lack of sleep, and age also affect walking safely.

We need those handrails on steps.  We love hanging onto those shopping buggies
in stores.  Thank goodness for all those walls and furniture to hold onto.

With my own case of MS, I had walking problems from the onset.  I was very young and the walls and buggies sufficed for a few years.  Then things started getting worse. I bought a collapsible cane and carried it in my briefcase everyday, but never used
it.  Until one day when I was crossing a cobblestone street and I wiped out.

That’s the day I took out the cane—I was thirty-years old and started using it for my poor balance. I was too startled and scared to be embarrassed.  After that day, I never hesitated to use that or any other assistive device.  It didn’t take much to fall down:  a crack in a sidewalk, a toe getting caught in a throw rug, or a shoe heel that was too

I thought of my cane as a pair of glasses that one uses to see better.  So I bought four canes in various colors and styles to match my outfits. Later, the walker-on-wheels with the built-in seat to rest on was a blessing when the weakness and fatigue would cause my legs to crumple after walking a short distance.  The added benefit of the basket to carry my things for me was so convenient.

We MSers need to think about tripping and falling constantly—something “normal” people take for granted.

Falling down is dangerous to us for several reasons.  Obviously, serious injuries can result.  Serious injuries not only impair daily living, they cause enormous stress and often cause a relapse.  Relapses lead to intensifying existing MS and creating new ones from residual damage. Injuries take longer for people with MS to heal because of the autoimmune response of our nervous system.

Steroids (such as Solu-medrol) are frequently prescribed to reduce inflammation and shorten the life of a relapse.  Most people on steroids suffer side effects and over time these cause loss of bone density.

Therefore, the older you are, the more dangerous it is to fall down. Not only are older people prone to fractures because of bone loss from things like menopause and osteoporosis, but those who lived a long life with MS probably used steroids frequently throughout the years to shorten their relapses.  Being fifty-seven years old, I was lucky I didn’t break a bone when I fell.

There is a whole arsenal of tools available to help prevent falling down–physical therapy, walking devices, strengthening/balance exercises, arranging daily habits to enable frequent resting…too many to talk about in this article. I’ve explored and use(d) so many of them and am always looking for new things out there to try.

Where to start?  Go to a physical therapist who has worked with MS patients and talk to other MSers. It is essential to learn how to do and use things correctly.

These things take time, dedication and will power to adjust to lifestyle changes.  They create more interference in our daily life and add more to do and worry about.  But the chance of suffering a serious injury doesn’t fit in with working full-time, being a spouse/parent, running a household or enjoying life either (sigh).

We with MS have to take every precaution we can from falling down.  Our lives (and our butts!) depend on it.