What causes people battling multiple sclerosis (MS) to experience difficulty walking?
MS is categorized by an intermittent decline in several neurologic functions. It is the disturbance in these neurological functions that causes problems with walking.
The information that the brain is supposed to get from the body is interrupted. For example; if the legs (body) wants to take a step and the brain does not receive that message (due to the interruption) the person is likely to fall.
With MS there is often a notable decrease with an individual’s walking ability (also known as gait) which includes the following:
- Speed at which someone with MS walks (slower)
- Walking stamina
- Step length
- Walking rhythm
- Joint motion (joint motion can affect all the above)
How common is it for a person with MS to have problems walking?
According to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, an estimated 2.3 million people have multiple sclerosis and that number continues to grow worldwide every year. Problems walking is the most common cause of falls and injuries. Statistics show that approximately 50-70% of people with MS fall on a regular basis.
A recent study, conducted by scientists and physicians in accordance with the National Multiple Sclerosis Society reported that nearly 30% of people who reported falling, fell several times, which all resulted in an injury of some type.
Enhancing an individual’s ability to walk safely while preventing a fall, is crucial. Not only do falls cause injuries, the time necessary to recuperate from strained or sprained muscles or broken bones can make walking (gait) problems worse and reduce the person’s independence.
What are the top fall risk factors?
People with MS generally fall inside their home, but that is not say that the risk of falling decreases outside, at work or while out in the community.
Falls are most common when people are doing everyday activities such as; bathing, dressing, cooking, cleaning, or walking in unfamiliar areas or crowds outside the home.
Risk factors for falls are multifaceted and can include the following:
- Slow walking
- Balance problems
- Problems with sensation of where your body is while waking (example – If the person is unable to fully feel their feet on the group they are more likely to under or over step and fall)
- Neurological problems if a person is unable to judge where their body is in relation to a wall, stairs, a street sign, curb etc. (because the signal from the brain to the body is interrupted) a fall is likely
- Medications, some medications can make the person dizzy, or affect the message system and the person may perceive something to be closer or further away than it is
- Incorrect use of canes or walkers or trying to walk without an assistive device
What are some strategies to help prevent falls?
There are several self-management strategies a person can use to help prevent the risk of falling.
- Take close look at your home and identify anything that could possibly pose a fall risk. Once they are identified “fall proof” them. For example; Throw rugs are a fall hazard for everyone, not just people with MS – either get rid of throw rugs or secure them to the floor so they do not unexpectedly move while you are walking across them.
- Always use the correct mobility device whether it be a cane or a walker, this will decrease your risk of falling greatly.
- If you fall more often when you are tried, then try to limit your walking or walk with assistance during those times.
- If your medication makes you dizzy or unsteady, plan to sit for a period of time, until you know it is safer for you to be up and moving around.
- If you are experiencing severe weakness in your lower body, going to be in a crowd, walking a long distance or for a long time or any situation where you feel walking may be a problem use a wheelchair or scooter.