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Shepherd Center Research Informs Wellness for People with Multiple Sclerosis

Wellness program represents a quest to stay ahead of a progressive disease.

Life with multiple sclerosis (MS) is often uncertain. As the body’s immune system begins to turn on itself, damaging the protective sheath (myelin) that covers the nerves, it’s difficult to know how this inflammatory, autoimmune disease will progress or affect a person.

Understandably, people living with MS often have their sights set on new and proven ways to feel better. Researchers at Shepherd Center are paving the way to find practical solutions and interventions to help – both in the clinic and through an increasingly robust research program.

“Although disease-modifying therapies help slow the progression of disability, they don’t treat the symptoms or address the remaining deficits due to MS,” says Deborah Backus, Ph.D., PT, director of MS research at the Eula C. and Andrew C. Carlos Multiple Sclerosis Rehabilitation and Wellness Program founded at Shepherd Center in 2012. “Our rehabilitation and wellness research is looking at ways to keep people as healthy and as functional as possible for as long as possible.”

In just a few short years, the program that was created with the expressed purpose of establishing and pushing forward MS wellness research has already made a name for itself. Dr. Backus and her team have initiated several research studies being conducted at Shepherd Center and with collaborators around the world.

“We are building on the pilot studies initially funded by the Carlos family, and the results are leading to more funding and international recognition,” says Dr. Backus, adding the National Multiple Sclerosis Society is among the new funders. “We are also beginning to publish and disseminate our research so we can start impacting clinical care.”

Some recent research highlights include studies to assess the potential benefits of functional electrical stimulation (FES) bike training, therapeutic massage and assessments for driving safety.

Functional Electrical Stimulation (FES) Cycling

Dr. Backus and her team conducted a four-week trial in collaboration with the University of Georgia that showed FES bike training three times a week appears to be safe for people with more progressive forms of MS. They are analyzing outcomes, but the initial data suggests that stimulating the legs to move in a rhythmical way may benefit these patients.

“We saw changes in their muscles, and it also significantly reduced pain and fatigue,” Dr. Backus says. “For people using a wheelchair, they improved in their cycling in a short period of time, suggesting they have the capacity to improve.”

More research is needed to see how this might relate to function. So far, 15 people have completed this study, and up to 20 more will be enrolled in 2015.

Massage and MS

Human touch can have a powerful effect on health, and research has found it may even promote healing. Therapeutic massage is known to help relax muscles, enhance range of motion, improve blood flow and reduce stress. Although as many as one-third of individuals with MS reportedly use massage as an adjunct to their medical treatment, there has been very little research on this approach.

Now, thanks to funding from the Massage Therapy Foundation, the research team at Shepherd Center is investigating whether and how routine massage can help improve pain, spasticity and overall quality of life among people with MS. Twenty-five participants are receiving standardized massages – for the same amount of time, number of strokes, parts of the body worked on – for one hour a week for six weeks.

Driving Safety

Being able to drive gives people a sense of independence, but there are often factors that can limit someone’s ability to drive safely. Shepherd Center researchers are conducting a study, called “Fitness to Drive,” in partnership with Georgia Regents University. This program is ongoing and has collected data for nearly 100 people with MS to date. The ultimate goal is to identify ways to rehabilitate driving to allow people with MS to retain the ability to drive safely.

For information about these and other studies, click here.

Written by Amanda Crowe, MA, MPH

About Shepherd Center

Shepherd Center provides world-class clinical care, research, and family support for people experiencing the most complex conditions, including spinal cord and brain injuries, multi-trauma, traumatic amputations, stroke, multiple sclerosis, and pain. An elite center recognized as both Spinal Cord Injury and Traumatic Brain Injury Model Systems, Shepherd Center is ranked by U.S. News as one of the nation’s top hospitals for rehabilitation. Shepherd Center treats thousands of patients annually with unmatched expertise and unwavering compassion to help them begin again.