The worsening of multiple sclerosis symptoms due to overheating was first described by William Uhthoff in 1890, therefore heat sensitivity in MS patients is also known at Uhthoff’s phenomenon. Back then, if the vision of patients with optic neuritis worsened after exercise or hot water baths, it was linked to neurological problems. Nowadays, diagnoses come from MRIs and other technologically advanced tests.
How does heat affect people with MS?
Studies have shown that an increase in body temperature can slow or block signals from traveling through demyelinated nerves. Heat intolerance can manifest in different ways, including: cognitive difficulties (“brain fog”), fatigue, blurred vision, and weakness. You’ll notice that these symptoms are already common in MS, but may become more pronounced with heat.
Ways to keep cool with MS
Stay indoors. When I was still working full-time, being at the office during the summer was a great relief. I drove to and from work in the cool morning and warm evening, and was inside during the hottest times of the day (between noon and 4pm). Keeping this type of schedule is still helpful to me today.
Cover up. Wearing a hat and staying in the shade helps keep your body temperature down. I myself prefer to walk with an umbrella for extra coverage. It is even fun keeping an assortment of pretty and colorful umbrellas.
Rest. Being overheated can literally feel like a drain on the body. A nap during the day or getting more sleep at night can help you recharge.
Cooling products. There are cooling products available for purchase, including cooling vests, pads, and even neck wraps, that are marketed to people with MS. Other products that can provide relief are hand-held fans, spray water bottles, and ice packs.
Thankfully, this heat intolerance phenomenon is temporary, which means there is no additional damage being done. It can be worrisome when it first happens, like with other symptoms, it is good to be mindful of how and when new symptoms arise and to discuss them with your neurologist.
How does the heat affect you?
Shortly after earning her MSW degree from Columbia University and starting a career in psychiatric social work, KM was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. She stopped working in 2013 and became active in the MS community. She joined team Park Pedalers for Bike MS: Coast the Coast in 2014 and she will be riding with them again this year. She lives in New Jersey with her husband, two children, and her nursemaids—cat, Mali, and dog, Moby.