WEDNESDAY, Jan. 31, 2018 -- Problems with balance are a common hallmark of multiple sclerosis, but new research suggests a specially designed exercise program can help put patients on firmer ground.
People with MS who enrolled in the 14-week program showed "greater improvements in balance, dizziness and fatigue," compared to MS patients who hadn't done the exercises. That's according to a team led by physiotherapist Jeffrey Hebert, of the University of Colorado School of Medicine, in Aurora.
As the researchers explained, problems with balance, vision and tiredness are common for people with MS. These issues can reduce mobility and raise the odds for injury-linked falls, the investigators noted in the Jan. 31 online issue of Neurology.
However, most programs aimed at improving balance in people with MS rely on standard strength-and-balance exercises that aren't designed for people with MS.
The new regimen -- called Balance and Eye-Movement Exercises for Persons with Multiple Sclerosis (BEEMS) -- had individuals perform balance and eye-movement exercises.
The study included 88 people with MS whose illness still allowed them to walk 109 yards using only a cane or other assistive device on one side. Half of the group was assigned to the exercise program, while the other half was told they were on a waiting list for the program.
Participants in the exercise group were required to balance on different surfaces while walking -- with and without head movements, and with eyes open or closed. They also engaged in eye-movement exercises to help improve their "visual stability."
The participants did six weeks of supervised exercises twice a week and also received instructions for exercising every day at home for another eight weeks.
"We wanted to see if performing balance and eye movement exercises, while processing multiple different sensory information could help people improve their balance and fatigue issues," Hebert said in a journal news release.
After just six weeks, those in the exercise group showed significant improvements in balance, fatigue and dizziness, compared with those who hadn't gotten the workouts.
One expert in MS care who reviewed the findings said the regimen looks promising.
"We know that patients with MS benefit tremendously from rehabilitation and exercise," said Dr. Dhanashri Miskin, a neurologist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City.
She said that "it makes sense that physical therapy targeted at strengthening balance control could help people improve their overall stability."
While the results are encouraging, Hebert said more studies are needed to find out if these improvements can be maintained, and to compare this exercise program to other balance training programs for people with MS.
The U.S. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke has more on multiple sclerosis.
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