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Perspectives in MS
Perspectives in MS

Heat and MS

Managing your MS symptoms in hundred degree heat.

It is going to feel like 100 degrees today in New York where I live. Ouch.

This seems like a good time to talk about heat and MS. The tendency of MS symptoms to worsen with increases in body temperature has been noted for some time. This is known today as Uthoff’s phenomenon, named for the German ophthalmologist Wilhelm Uhthoff who, in 1890, noticed that the symptoms in patients with optic neuritis tended to worsen as their body temperature rose.  Elevated body temperatures slow down conduction in the nerves, explaining why old MS symptoms worsen the heat. In fact, prior to the advent of neuroimaging procedures, patients suspected of having MS were placed in hot water baths to bring out their symptoms as a routine part of diagnosis. Thus far, I have met only one elderly patient who said that she had this done.

It is still very common for me to hear patients say that they develop the brief return of neurological symptoms when they are in a hot shower or after a day at the beach. In a handful of patients, their diagnosis was made only after they complained of symptoms related to an elevation of their body temperature.

Much more common, I find, is that patients with MS don’t experience the recurrence of specific neurological symptoms such as numbness or visual loss, but rather an overwhelming sense of fatigue and malaise. Most people don’t want to do anything other than sit in front a powerful air conditioner when it is 100 degrees outside, but for many MS patients this desire to escape the heat is magnified.  

That said, let me clarify that heat is not dangerous for MS. It does not cause new symptoms or relapse to occur; rather it may cause old, partially healed symptoms of MS to return. So patients with MS should not be afraid of the sun or a nice sauna.  Rather, they should know that they might be a bit sensitive to the effects of the heat and should not over-exert themselves in the summer sun. 

There are a number of cooling devises and cooling vests to help people with MS deal with the heat. The MS Association of America has some information about how to get these products on their website.  

Additionally the National Multiple Sclerosis Society offers vouchers for patients to help purchase air conditioners.   

I hope that my patients are able to enjoy the summer sun as much as anyone else. They just need to take a bit more caution when doing so.

I am available via e-mail address at perspectivesinms@healthline.com and will try to answer all questions.

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Tags: Living With , Symptom Management

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About the Author

Dr. Howard is a neurologist & psychiatrist, and an expert in multiple sclerosis.

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