Study Shows Benefits of Low Temperature Exercise for MS Patients

Study Shows Benefits of Low Temperature Exercise for MS Patients

Reducing body temperature during physical exercise can help rewire the brain and improve motor control in patients with multiple sclerosis (MS), a new research study at Canada’s Memorial University shows.

Physical exercise can have several benefits for patients with MS, including improved strength and reduced symptoms of fatigue and depression.  However, many patients are advised to limit their physical activity because they often experience heat sensitivity and their symptoms worsen.

Michelle Ploughman, PhD, who is Memorial’s Canada Research Chair in neuroplasticity, neurorehabilitation and brain recovery, and her collaborators wanted to investigate if cooling a patient’s body could help them exercise, and how much cooling would be needed.

The study enrolled nine patients with MS who were asked to walk on a treadmill with a supportive harness for 30 minutes in a room that was kept at 16°C (approximately 60.8°F). Patients exercised three times a week, for a total of 12 weeks.

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The research team then evaluated the participants’ brains to assess how the brain cells were working. They also measured walking speed, oxygen use, lesions in the brain, and markers of recovery in the blood.

According to the team, patients were able to tolerate the treatment with significant improvements in their walking ability during the study period.

“It’s remarkable,” Ploughman said in a Memorial University news story written by Michelle Osmond and Rebecca Rebeiro. “This is not supposed to happen, according to the textbooks. It hasn’t been recorded before.”

For several years, Jennifer Archer, one of the study participants, watched her mother and her grandmother succumb to MS. When she was diagnosed with the disease she already knew what her fate would be. However, enrolling into the study had a major impact on her symptoms, much more than she could expect.

She first thought she would be able to get through two or three minutes on the treadmill in the first session. But, to her great surprise, she walked for 40 minutes.

According to the participants of the study, the tested exercise strategy did not improve only their mobility, but it also improved their energy levels, helped them make new friends, and — perhaps most importantly — it gave them a new hope.

“Psychologically, this has helped me so much. My depression is non-existent since I started this,” Archer said. “That means MS has not beaten me down. MS does not have control over my life. I have control over my life. I’m a person who has MS, but I’ve pulled MS away from who I am.”

Lisa Cooney, another MS participant in the study, added: “One of the biggest things with MS is that it takes away so much control. My biggest fear with walking was, if I go there, I have to come back. And because I didn’t know where that halfway mark was, I didn’t do it. This study has given us control.”

Before the study, and after several falls, Cooney’s physiotherapist suggested she get a wheelchair. Cooney refused to do so.

Since the study, Archer continues to exercise at home three times a week for 40 minutes — with no harness and holding on with one hand – in a new treadmill she bought. She and Cooney, who also exercises regularly, hope to participate in walks to raise awareness about MS and depression.

“When you have MS, you never think you’re going to get better than what you are because it’s degenerative. You think, this is the way my life is and I can’t get any stronger or do what other people do. But now I feel like I have my life back,” Archer said.

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  1. Hi, I’m Kathy and I have ms, I would love to congratulate Michelle Ploughman,PhD,on looking into cold temperatures, I am proof that cold temperatures are soo much better for me,personally, I have fought this idea with my nurses and neurologist since 2015 when I 1st saw the massive difference in my health being out in Levi, Finland for an amazing holiday, -20° the last 2 trips there,every time the same thing happens, I can walk without my stick, I don’t cramp,spasm,tremor, fatique just disappears, my motor skills are soo much better, thankyou for doing a study into this, I will continue the fight about cold temperatures!! Not suitable for everyone but for the ones it does help it is a dream to not hurt for a while, to not have pain, cramping,fatique,thankyou soo much, I will show my ms nurse and neurologist this evidence of your study. My mum is really interested in how my lesions in my brain are while I’m out in the cold to see if there are any changes. I need to live out in Finland to have a better quality of life. I have no stiffness/tightness in limbs, I can walk better, I don’t have tremors, they stop when in the cold,everything calms down when in the cold. I have recently found out that they regularly use cryotherapy to help people with ms in Poland, something else I will be looking into. Many many thanks,Kathy,I am soo pleased someone has finally started to look into this.x

  2. Paul Turnock says:

    Most interesting but opens up many questions. For example:
    When exercising in a cold environment (16 degrees) do you dress down in order to feel colder than would be normal?
    Is it more important for the head (brain) to be cold rather than the whole body?
    In summer it would be difficult to exercise cold in the outdoors but swimming provides good exercise in a colder situation, provided the pool is not heated. Winter swimming would be even colder!!

  3. Daniel R. Wagner MD says:

    Not to throw ‘cold water’ on this study but the exacerbation of symptoms of MS is due to an increase in core i.e. brain temperature, not to how cool the environment feels which is due to skin temperature. It is well known that exercise has a positive effect on mood which is the more likely mechanism here. It would have been better to have measured core temperature via an indwelling rectal probe.Core temperature can be reduced by vigorous excercise but it takes a lot of it.

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