Falling for MS

Let’s cut right to the chase. If the nursery rhyme “Ring Around the Rosie” were to ever become an Olympic sport, folks with multiple sclerosis would be destined for glory. Not only do we “all fall down,” we fall down with such regularity that people might mistake us for soccer players. How to tell the difference? When we are writhing in pain, we’re typically not feigning injury (unless the cooler full of beer is just too long of a walk and you are trying to enlist spousal sympathy—a tactic that rarely works and I speak from experience).

It might seem obvious that researchers, in a large meta-analysis of nearly 600 MSers in four countries, concluded that folks with this disease are at a “high risk of falls and there are important associations between falls and MS-associated disability, gender and age.” Duh. Numb feet, wonky balance, rubber legs, bad eyesight, and a bumbly brain tend to influence such things. But if you read the full study, a more interesting picture appears. Permit me not to mince words: we largely are a stubborn group, with easily bruised egos, intent on not looking disabled.

Looking through the data, researchers zeroed in on one group in particular: the tweeners, those who are starting to need walking assistance but technically can go without. "It suggests that fall risk peaks at an EDSS score of 4.0 (when quantifiable mobility limitations are first acknowledged) and 6.0 (when a walking aid is required)." Do you wall and furniture surf, smudging up the house like a three-year-old? You are a tweener. Do you avoid taking a cane to work to so you won’t be known as the token disabled person? Yup, you are a tweener. Does the thought of using a walker mortify you, yet deep down you know it would probably help? Bingo: tweener.

And parsing the data further only reinforces what we already know. Ego plays a large role in our will to appear healthy and able-bodied. It's not the old geezers who are concerned about how they look in public (most already crossed that hurdle when they started wearing black socks with shorts), it’s the youngins. "Sustaining multiple falls was associated with younger age and the relative rate of falls was higher for younger participants." Predictably, gender matters, too. Who traditionally has the most easily bruised ego? Dudes. "In our sample the men had a significantly higher fall rate than the women, suggesting that men with MS who fall are at risk for frequent falls."

These days I rarely fall. After breaking my leg while trying to show off, ripping off a toenail days before an international trip, and clutching mostly naked men to stay upright, I’ve learned my lesson. It’s just not worth it. I use every available walking aid: canes, forearm crutches, walkers, trekking poles, grocery carts, you name it. And I’m not shy about my disability. Hell, these days I make restaurant reservations under the name Gimpy Dave. (“Did you say your first name is Gimpy? Or is that your last name?”) I always get a great seat and a big smile. Yeah, I may be gimpy. But nothing trips me up.