Students look around nervously, some giggling. The floor is littered with long pieces of tape, cushions and dots that look like they were ripped from a game of Twister. The teacher hands out sheets of paper and instructs students on the rules of Red Light, Green Light.
But this isn’t just another afternoon in a kindergarten classroom. The students are multiple sclerosis patients who are trying desperately to retain the ability to walk. And their “playground” is the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation’s Multiple Sclerosis Center of Excellence.
Multiple sclerosis is an autoimmune disease that damages the ability of the nervous system to carry signals to and from the brain. As it progresses, MS makes it increasingly difficult for patients to control things like balance, vision and coordination, which are all integral to walking.
MS Free From Falls is an 8-week course designed by the National MS Society and focused on educating patients on the components of balance, safety, self-awareness and exercise. OMRF physical therapist Amy Thiessen said the program, in conjunction with medication and a physician’s care, can help students retain mobility and avoid injury.
The course is just one of many opportunities the MS Center of Excellence offers patients. The multi-disciplinary center combines innovative clinical treatment for more than 2,000 patients and cutting-edge research into diagnostics and emerging therapies. An important component of OMRF’s comprehensive approach to MS care is giving patients ways to master day-to-day living skills, such as improving balance and mobility.
“Balance is like a muscle,” she said. “You kind of have to push the limits so that your brain steps up to the challenge.”
The exercises are simple, yet effective. In one, students step forward and backward over gaps marked by tape. In another, they track moving objects with their eyes while standing on unsteady surfaces.
“When your body is already struggling to obey orders, the last thing you need is to fall and cause more damage,” Thiessen said. “If we can use games and exercises to prepare for everyday challenges like crossing the street or walking on deep-pile carpet, then there’s a better chance to prevent falls and additional injuries.”
For Norman resident Maureen Keller, the class couldn’t come soon enough. Keller, who has had MS for 15 years, fell and broke her leg last year and has spent 11 months rehabbing it.
“MS and lack of balance contributed to my fall, and this class addresses both,” she said. “It’s also very helpful to have a class with others who are dealing with the disease. MS provides different challenges to all of us.”
Emily Teasdale, of Oklahoma City, said she was always a klutz, but falling has been much more dangerous since she was diagnosed with MS in 1998.
“The biggest takeaway from the class so far has been to pay more attention to my surroundings,” she said. “I’m more aware of what might happen and how to guard against problems. I can look around and plan my day a bit better now.”
Patients interested in signing up for the next round of MS Free From Falls classes should contact Jennifer Philp at the Oklahoma chapter of the National MS Society at Jennifer.philp@NMSS.org or 918-488-0882, extension 35112.
“The science and treatment of multiple sclerosis have come incredibly far in the last decade,” said Thiessen. “Patients don’t have to surrender to MS. They can fight to retain control, and I think this class can be a useful weapon in that battle.”