Reaction time, vision, quick deliberate movements—these are important in most sports, but as a hockey goalie these skills are vital!

Josh Harding, starting goaltender for the Minnesota Wild, is currently leading the NHL in Goals Against Average at 1.65 and is tied for 2nd in save percentage at .933. He nearly made this year's Canadian Olympic Ice hockey team (a perennial medal favorite) and likely would have been an Olympian had he lived anywhere other than Canada.

Harding's career took an interesting turn since the fall of 2012. He went from being a back-up goalie, averaging fewer than 30 games per season over the past five years, to Olympic hopeful and one of the best goalies in the NHL.

But what separates the 28 year old Harding from other players is that he has accomplished this AFTER being diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis.

Multiple Sclerosis (MS) is a progressive neurological disease that slows the firing pattern of your nerves and delays the messages being sent from your brain and spinal cord to the rest of your body. The disease is one of the most common causes of non-traumatic disability among persons in their 20s to 30s, but can also occur later in life. Currently, there are approximately 400,000 persons in the US and 2.5 million worldwide living with MS. Other prominent celebrities that have been diagnosed with MS include Jack Osbourne, Montel Williams, Annette Funicello, Ann Romney, Neil Cavuto, and Clay Walker.

Typical symptoms are a decrease or change in vision, which was Harding's first symptom; fatigue/ unexplained loss of strength; and numbness, tingling, or muscle spasm.  Each individual is affected in different ways both initially and over the progression of their disease.  MS can be broken into four different sub types:

  • Relapsing- Remitting
  • Primary- Progressive
  • Secondary- Progressive
  • Progressive- Relapsing

A person with Relapsing-Remitting MS, the most common type of MS, will have exacerbations in which the symptoms progress for a period of time and then remit. Often the individual is left with some progressive disability following an exacerbation. As the disease is progressive in nature, individuals with MS will often require a cane, walker, or wheel chair for mobility as they age.

Many medical providers are involved in the care and management of MS including neurologists and primary care physicians. Periodic rehabilitation with a physical therapist to address mobility is extremely beneficial. These programs often include exercises to address strength, endurance, flexibility, and balance.

Regular physical activity is important for everyone. For a person with Multiple Sclerosis, regular physical activity of moderate intensity is paramount to their long term health and mobility. The exercise goal should be at least 30 minutes, five times per week. Persons who are not physically fit when diagnosed may need to work up to these parameters. Participating in regular physical activity will strengthen an individual and create a better base. It will help prevent heart disease, strengthen bones, and decrease stress. The stronger a person is prior to an exacerbation, the stronger he/she will be following it.

Persons with MS often have difficulty regulating their body temperature and can become overheated quickly.  Exercising in a cool environment, staying hydrated, and recognizing the signs of overheating and fatigue will help individuals with MS maximize their exercise programs. If a person with MS becomes overly fatigued, their disability may worsen until the fatigue subsides.

Although over-fatigue should be avoided, it does not lead to exacerbations. People with MS should exercise regularly unless they are experiencing an exacerbation, and challenge themselves (under the directions of a qualified health care provider.) Doing so will help maximize mobility and may delay the progression and symptoms of their MS.

So how does an NHL goalie with Multiple Sclerosis, a disease affecting reaction and vision, not only compete but excel in one of the toughest positions in sports, requiring reaction time and vision? It will require a continued commitment to physical activity, regular communication with his medical team, medication to decrease spasms and slow the progression of MS, and an unrelenting spirit that pushes through adversity, showing us that anything is possible.

Dr. Heather Anderson is an Assistant Professor at Neumann University and teaches in the Physical Therapy Program. Dr. Anderson has completed the Vestibular Certification course through Emory University and has been recognized as a Board Certified Specialist in Neurologic Physical Therapy by the American Physical Therapy Association.

Read more Sports Doc for Sports Medicine and Fitness.