by Mitch Hauschildt, MA, ATC, CSCS
Neuroplasticity is not only a very interesting and intriguing concept to me as a clinician and coach, it is also extremely personal. On this day 5 years ago, my wife and I received the devastating news that I was being diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis, a disease that affects about 2.5 million people worldwide every year. It is characterized by demylenation of the central nervous system and typically leads to poor movement quality and eventually disability for most people. At the time of my diagnosis, the numbers pointed towards me planning on being wheelchair bound in 5-15 years. It is categorized with a number of other neurological disorders that are typically tied back to the immune system and the body attacking itself.
On MRI, MS presents as white lesions on the brain and often form what are referred to as Dawson’s Fingers. These finger shaped lesions vary from patient to patient in both number and size. In the picture here, you see a typical MRI showing several Dawson’s fingers on a person with MS. Upon diagnosis, my MRI looked very similar to this example with 2 fingers on the left side of my brain.
So, how does neuroplasticity play into these chronic illnesses? First, let’s define it:
the ability of the brain to form and reorganize synaptic connections, especially in response to learning or experience or following injury
It is this idea that we can actually retrain the brain to perform actions that were previously difficult or impossible due to injury or even long periods of poor learned behavior. It is essentially remapping the nervous system by reorganizing the connections throughout the brain and nervous system. To illustrate how effective neuroplasticity can be, I’ll use my personal story to demonstrate it’s power. I don’t typically use myself as an example and certainly not every patient or client will react in the same manner that my body has, but I do think that my story paints a nice picture of how this can work.
After a full work up of tests and evaluations, I was diagnosed with MS and the search for answers began. I searched out the best neurologists in the country for treatment while simultaneously looking for treatment options that I could control myself. Those basically lead me to diet and exercise as the major things that I can control.
I quickly made significant changes in my diet to decrease my inflammation and improve the nutrients and antioxidants that I was consuming. The next step was exercise. I looked at every research study that I could get my hands on that related to neurological disorders and exercise. What I found didn’t make much sense to me and my understanding of the human body and quite honestly, it frustrated me. The majority of the research said that exercise was good for improving cardiovascular health, strength and flexibility, but it was centered around keeping the patient safe by using machines and bands. This didn’t (and still doesn’t) make sense to me because those do nothing to stimulate the central nervous system.
I began to think outside the box with my exercise programming and push right into the areas that I struggled with the most. I spent a lot of time training my neural edge with anything and everything that I could find that stimulated my brain and nervous system. I soon learned that standing on a vibration platform immediately decreased my pain. It was truly like a light switch. When I became sore and tired, a few bouts of 30 seconds of vibration instantly improved my symptoms. Not only was this a light switch for turning off my pain, but it was a light bulb moment for me that if I stimulated the brain (vibration is really good at stimulating the CNS), I improved. If it worked for my pain, then it will work for my symptoms,
I knew that single leg balance was my biggest challenge, so I began performing single leg squats and single leg hip hinging in some manner every day. I used a lot of variety in my training to continually stimulate the brain while keeping the intensity at an intense, but manageable level. After a few weeks, my single leg balance was still far from good, but it was greatly improved. Clearly what I was doing was helping.
I eventually moved on to movements that I define as “high neurological load” activities. This includes things like Turkish Get Ups, unstable movements using things like a TRX Suspension Trainer and unstable implements like the Ultimate Sandbag. All of these layer complexity over already high quality movement patterns in an effort to increase the stimulation to the nervous system.
I also changed my footwear significantly with my daily living. I got out of my shoes and did more things barefoot and began wearing minimus style shoes. We know that the brain gets a lot of stimulus through the bottom of the foot, yet we tend to cover them up with thick, spongy running shoes that I believe actually “dumbs down” our feet. I like to feel every crack and rock under foot when I walk because I believe this stimulates my brain with every step.
Over the next few months, I saw significant improvement in my symptoms. I began running, cycling and lifting on a regular basis again. Approximately 8 months after my diagnosis, I ran my first ever 5k. I limped through the last mile, but I made it. Fast forward 5 years later, I can run 3.5 miles without any foot drop or limp. I have cycled thousands of miles and I even competed in my first triathlon last summer. How do I explain my improvement? Neuroplasticity. There’s really no other explanation and here’s why:
While I continue to eat better than prior to my diagnosis, I don’t find any appreciable improvements with any single diet plan over another. At this point, I just try to eat healthy, so I don’t put a lot of strength in the diet argument for my personal situation.
There are documented cases where you see the body actually re-mylenate damaged nerves in patients with MS. So, one might think that is happening and might explain my physical improvements. But, if that was the case, my MRI would look different over the years with the lesions changing in size and/or location over time. This is not the case as I have had 4 MRI scans over the last 5 years and they are all identical in the size, shape and activity.
The only other explanation outside of neuroplasticity could be the medication that I take for my MS. As much as I would love to say that our medicine has evolved to the point where we are seeing a reverse in symptoms thanks to medication, we just aren’t there yet in a consistent and reliable manner (they are getting closer every day). With the exception of Ampyra, the medication that I take is simply to slow or stop the progression of the disease. Ampyra is a drug that is designed to improve neurological function (nicknamed “the walking drug”), but after 5 years of taking it and the large improvements that I have made, I don’t notice much difference in my symptoms when I take it and when I don’t. So, I don’t feel that it is the major factor here as well.
I believe that over time (several years of consistent, targeting training), my brain has remapped itself to get around the lesions and demylenated parts of my brain in an effort to make the compromised movement patterns more efficient. I don’t believe for me it is about diet or medications, so the only thing left is actually training the brain.
What I do know for sure is that when I am exercising and training consistently and with purpose my symptoms are nonexistent. When I get busy or lazy, some of my symptoms creep back in. I truly believe that movement is the cure to most things that ail us. While this approach may not work for everyone who is facing injury or illness, I firmly believe that the combination of all of the neurologically stimulating interventions that I have intentionally incorporated in my daily life has made all the difference for me. Not only am I doing things now that I never did 5, 10 or even 15 years ago, I plan on doing more things over the next 5 years from now that I can’t do now. I am excited and driven to improve every day and see what this life has in store for me next.