Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a disease affecting over 400,000 people in the United States. It causes muscle weakness or spasms, fatigue, numbness or tingling, problems with vision or swallowing, and pain. This condition occurs when the body’s immune system attacks support structures in the brain, causing them to become damaged and inflamed.
Ann Romney received a diagnosis of relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis in 1998. This form of MS comes and goes unpredictably. In tackling her illness, she combined traditional medicine with alternative therapies to regain her quality of life.
It was a crisp autumn day in 1998 when Romney felt her legs go weak and her hands became unexplainably shaky. Thinking back, she realized that she’d been tripping and stumbling more and more often. Always the athletic type, playing tennis, skiing and jogging regularly, Romney grew scared at the weakness in her limbs. She called her brother Jim, a doctor, who told her to see a neurologist as soon as she could.
At Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, an MRI of her brain revealed the telltale lesions characteristic of MS. The numbness spread to her chest. “I felt I was being eaten away," she told the Wall Street Journal.
The primary treatment for multiple sclerosis is a high dose of steroids injected into the bloodstream over the course of three to five days. Steroids suppress the immune system and calm its attacks on the brain. They reduce inflammation as well. Although some MS sufferers require other medicines to control their symptoms, for Romney, steroids were enough to reduce the attacks.
But the side effects from it and other medications became too much to bear. To recover strength and mobility, she had her own plan.
The steroids helped with the attack, but they didn’t help the fatigue. “The unrelenting, extreme fatigue was suddenly my new reality,” she wrote. Then Romney remembered her love of horses.
At first, she could only ride for a few minutes a day. But with determination, she soon regained her ability to ride, and with it, to move and walk freely. “The rhythm of a horse's gait closely assimilates a human's and moves the rider's body in a fashion that enhances muscle strength, balance, and flexibility,” she wrote. “The connection both physical and emotional among horse and human is powerful beyond explanation.”
Recent studies have found that equine therapy can bring relief to MS patients.
As her coordination returned, Romney’s leg remained numb and weak. She sought out the services of Fritz Blietschau, an Air Force mechanic turned reflexology practitioner near Salt Lake City.
Reflexology is a complementary therapy that involves massaging the hands and feet to cause changes in pain or other benefits elsewhere in the body. Although many doctors don’t think that reflexology can treat MS-related pain, a 2003 study and a 2009 study in Multiple Sclerosis Journal found that reflexology may offer some benefits. Reflexology is one of the most popular alternative treatments for MS.
Romney also sought out acupuncture as a treatment. Acupuncture works by inserting slim needles into specific points on the skin. An estimated 20 to 25 percent of MS patients try out acupuncture for relief of their symptoms. Although some studies may have found it helps some patients, most specialists don’t think it offers any benefits.
“I don't think anyone can prepare for a diagnosis such as this, but I was very fortunate to have the love and support of my husband, my family, and my friends,” Romney wrote.
Although she had her family by her side every step of the way, Romney felt that her personal attitude of self-reliance helped carry her through her ordeal. “Even though I had the loving support of my family, I knew this was my battle,” she wrote. “I was not interested in going to group meetings or getting any help, after all, I was strong and independent.”
But Romney can’t do it all alone. “As time has passed and I've come to terms with living with multiple sclerosis, I've realized how wrong I was and how much strength you can gain through others,” she wrote.
She recommends that people struggling with multiple sclerosis, particularly the newly diagnosed, reach out and connect with others on the National Multiple Sclerosis Society’s online community.
Today, Romney deals with her MS without any medication, preferring alternative therapies to keep her sound, although sometimes this results in occasional flare-ups.
“This treatment program has worked for me and I am very fortunate to be in remission, but the same treatment may not work for others and everyone should follow the recommendations of his/her personal physician,” Romney wrote.