In the olden days MS was diagnosed by popping a person into a hot bath and watching to see how their body responded. If they shrivelled up and died they had MS, if they sat there happily splashing around with a rubber duck they were deemed fine. Leading up to my diagnosis back in 2010 I rather optimistically purchased a souvenir rubber duck from the Statue of Liberty. Little did I know that my days of relaxing in the tub with a duck were very soon to be numbered. How can I even describe what it feels like to have MS and to be immersed in a hot, or even just a warm, bath? Well, ‘Ouch’ would be a start. It’s like your whole body is being shrink-wrapped, the tightness is unbearable. Any symptom you’ve ever had reappears with a vengeance: blurred vision, colour flashes, slurred speech, pins ‘n’ needles all through your body, and extreme heaviness. It’s like your body is filling up with lead and to lift your leg up even an inch seems like a marathon task. So, how do you get out of a bath when you find yourself in this situation? Quite simply, you scream and yell for your husband to come and rescue you (if no-one is in then you should never have got in the bath in the first place). And don’t even think you can stand up to get yourself dry once you’ve been yanked out of the bath, oh nononononononono, don’t even try.
This can happen in a walk-in shower too. Only last week I found myself getting progressively weak as I tried to shampoo my hair; I gradually sank lower and lower until I was sitting on the floor of the shower with no strength to get back up. I crawled out of the shower, slipped and ended up lying flat on my face like a frog playing dead. Feel free to laugh, I did.
There is a name given to this crazy-ass quirk: Uhthoff’s Phenomenon. Put simply this phenomenon is a worsening of symptoms in MS and other neurological conditions when the body overheats. This can happen in many situations, not just when having a bath: swimming, warm weather, exercise, fever, using a hairdryer, opening an oven door, walking into a shop that blasts you with hot air as you enter, sitting in a hot office at work with colleagues who don’t want the window open… As I understand it when nerves are damaged overheating can block or slow down nerve impulses causing symptoms to worsen and even stop you in your tracks. Once the body temperature has normalised these symptoms will improve or disappear.
With this in mind you may be tickled to know that the most common piece of advice given to me when I’m feeling tired and achy is, “Have a nice hot bath…”
First published 18 November 2017