Paper: HOUSTON CHRONICLE
Date: SUN 04/10/05
Edition: 4 STAR
Survivors faced with unexpected obstacle /Exercise after polio can bring pain years later
By ERIC BERGER
Polio has not been kind to its survivors .
After the disease ravaged their bodies, those who survived their stays in iron lungs worked muscles in water tanks and rehabilitation centers, fighting to regain the use of arm and leg muscles.
Now, decades after fighting off paralytic polio, these survivors are faced with the return of muscle pain and fatigue called post-polio syndrome. And this time doctors have a different prescription - one that a legion of scrappy polio survivors does not want to hear.
"Exercise is out of the question," said Dr. Carlos Vallbona, of the Baylor College of Medicine and The Institute for Rehabilitation and Research, who has treated polio in Houston since 1955.
"It's really very frustrating for a person to be told they have to cut down their physical activity. You're telling them they're going to end up in motorized scooters. These are patients who have conquered polio, who got out of their wheelchairs. They don't want to hear it, obviously. It's very, very discouraging."
The culprit is the motor neurons in muscles and nerve tissue that the polio virus initially damaged or destroyed. Exercise after the disease allowed victims to recover some use of these muscles by restoring function to damaged motor neurons.
Although recovered, the neurons were weakened. Years later, Vallbona said, these stressed neurons are prematurely dying because of exercise and use.
"Nobody expected this," said Nita Weil, development chair of the Texas Polio Survivors ' Association.
Hundreds of thousands of Americans suffer from post-polio syndrome. The change from an active lifestyle to a more sedentary one is especially troubling for polio survivors , Weil said, because the prevailing attitude among survivors was one of not wanting to become a burden on society.
Weil became infected with polio in 1952 and has needed a wheelchair and breathing help ever since.
Beating the odds
But success stories among polio survivors abound. Born in Houston, Robert McAshan, 58, thinks he may have contracted polio in 1951 when playing in dirty water at Addicks Dam.
When released from the hospital nine months later, both of his legs were paralyzed. He continued to exercise and became good with crutches. His upper body was strong enough to win pull-up and chin-up competitions in school.
He attended Rice University and got a master's of business administration degree from the University of Texas at Austin. He now manages investment portfolios at Frost Bank.
"I've adapted to it," he said of polio. "I chose a career that didn't require a whole lot of physical activity and educated myself toward that goal."
By the early 1990s, however, McAshan began having shoulder and leg pain from using the crutches. He now relies on a power chair, using crutches only when absolutely necessary. McAshan said he didn't fight the change because he wants to maintain the ability to transfer from his chair to a couch or bed and to do basic functions such as getting dressed. Moderate exercise will allow this. Overuse of muscles will not, he said.
"This isn't something you asked for," he said. "But my attitude has always been to just deal with it as best as possible."