May 12-18, 2000
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U.Va. researcher shares benefits of exercise for people with MS

By Anne Bromley

Lisa Eorio and Joe Gieck
Stephanie Gross
Lisa Eorio, a researcher with the Nursing School's Southeastern Rural Mental Health Center, works out at the McCue Center, the University's Athletic Training/Sports Medicine department, aided by its director Joe Gieck. Eorio, who has MS, is sitting on the large rubber ball to improve balance while lifting weights.

I'm not going to let this stop me from finishing my degree," U.Va. research scientist Lisa Eorio remembers think- ing when multiple sclerosis hit her hard 10 years ago in the middle of graduate school. After getting her master's in economics, she continued in sociology and earned her Ph.D. from the University in 1996.

Diagnosed in 1976 at the age of 21, Eorio was relatively symptom-free during her first 10 years with MS. But by 1990, her condition worsened, and she began to experience weakness in her arms, hands and legs, as well as mental and physical exhaustion.

Her deteriorating physical condition prompted her doctor at U.Va.'s Student Health department to recommend physical therapy. She has maintained an exercise program, which she believes has been key to managing her MS symptoms and enabling her to continue her education and advance her career. She now works as a research scientist for the Nursing School's Southeastern Rural Mental Health Center.

Eorio feels so strongly about the value of exercise in battling MS that she coordinated a specialized program for others with the disease. In April, she received a grant from Berlex Laboratories to offer the program for free.

Eorio credits the University's Athletic Training/Sports Medicine department, and especially its director, Joe Gieck, for providing her with the support needed to keep up her fitness program. "Joe made me feel welcome there and taught me a lot," she said.

"I have seen friends with MS lose function, not wholly from progression in the disease process, but also from lack of activity," Eorio said. "I have had the good fortune of learning about and experiencing the benefits of a regular exercise program, and I want to help others with MS by providing them with this invaluable opportunity.

"Given one's condition, maximizing the function you do have is helpful in managing the symptoms," she said, adding that physical therapy research has shown the benefits of exercise for people with MS.

She is one of six recipients of this year's "Champions of Courage" grants, a program offered by the company that makes Betaseron, the first drug approved about five years ago for treating MS. (Since then, several other medications have come out.) With her grant, Eorio has organized a fitness course for others with MS. Thirteen people signed up, including one other person who works at U.Va., and some had to be turned away, she said.

During the 12 twice-weekly sessions, which began May 2, participants and their partners receive personalized support from a team of physical therapists, athletic trainers and a sports psychologist, as well as each other. Videotapes of the sessions and exercise equipment are also provided free of charge to participants. Significant others are included because they are such a big influence, she noted.

This isn't the only effort Eorio has made to help others with MS. She started a support group seven years ago that still meets twice a month. She also started an aquatics exercise class, partially funded by the Multiple Sclerosis Society, when U.Va.'s Aquatics and Fitness Center opened four years ago. People with MS, as well as others in rehabilitation after injury, exercise in water that's about 77degrees -- cooler than the typical in-door pool, because the body works more efficiently at that temperature.

The origin of MS is unknown, but Eorio said one current hypothesis attributes it to a virus prevalent in northern climates that children get before the age of 11. Symptoms, however, don't start showing up until one's mid- to late-20s.

Multiple sclerosis, which afflicts up to 350,000 people in the U.S., is a disease that randomly attacks the central nervous system, affecting the pathways within the brain and spinal cord. Much like wires within an electrical cord or a telephone cable, the pathways are normally protected with a covering of insulation, allowing messages from the central nervous system to be transmitted quickly and clearly. In MS, that insulation, called myelin, gets damaged in scattered areas. Scarring develops in those places, disrupting the flow of messages, which in turn, causes the symptoms of MS.

A person with MS has a relapse when the disease attacks some area of the central nervous system. In addition to feeling physical and mental fatigue, one's muscular strength and coordination, balance, sensation and vision can be affected, depending on which areas of the central nervous system are damaged. No cure exists -- "yet," says the optimistic Eorio.


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