Many people with multiple sclerosis (MS) are sensitive to heat and changes in body temperature. For a person with MS, even a quarter- or half-degree change in core body temperature can temporarily trigger symptoms. Environments that others might not think twice about — a humid backyard, stuffy room, or hot shower — can make MS symptoms worse. This condition is called Uhthoff’s phenomenon.
The connection between heat and MS symptom flare-ups is so well-established that before the invention of MRI, doctors used to submerge people they believed to have MS in hot baths. If the person’s neurological symptoms suddenly flared, the physician would presume their diagnosis was correct.
Thankfully, tests like those are unnecessary today. What’s more, people with MS can avoid the complications and risks of heat sensitivity. It just requires some planning and preparation.
Why Heat Makes MS Symptoms Worse
In people with MS, the body’s defenders (white blood cells) attack the central nervous system, causing inflammation and stripping the nerves of their protective coating (myelin). This process, known as demyelination, leaves the nerves vulnerable and reduces their ability to transmit electrical signals to the brain.
Research indicates that when a person with MS experiences an uptick in core temperature, neural conduction (the passing of messages along nerve fibers) slows down or, in some cases, is blocked entirely. The severity of the symptom flare-up depends on the extent of a person’s demyelination and how drastically their core temperature has changed.
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