After diagnosis by a neurologist, CMT patients are usually directed to either a podiatrist for care of their foot problems, an orthotist for the manufacture and fitting of braces, an orthopedic surgeon for surgeries to straighten toes, lengthen heel cords or lower arches, or a physical therapist or occupational therapist to design exercise programs to strengthen muscles or learn energy conservation.
Although there is no cure for CMT at the present time, there are many therapies that can greatly improve life and function for CMT patients. The general advice for patients seeking assistance is to look first for the least invasive way to correct their problems.
In general, it is important for people with CMT to maintain what movement, muscle strength and flexibility they have. Hence, physical therapy and moderate activity are recommended. Overexertion, however, should be avoided. Swimming or water therapy is an excellent form of exercise since it does not put undue stress on the joints. A physical therapist can design an exercise program that fits a patient’s personal strengths and flexibility. It is impossible to build up muscles already atrophied by CMT, so the best program works on strengthening unaffected muscles that can help do the work of those that have atrophied because of CMT.
Bracing is another non-invasive form of correcting problems caused by CMT. Often gait abnormalities can be corrected by the use of either articulated (hinged) or unarticulated, molded braces called AFOs (ankle-foot orthoses). These braces help control foot drop and ankle instability and often provide a better sense of balance for patients. There are many new forms of bracing available for CMT patients, depending, of course, on the severity of their foot deformities and muscle weaknesses.
Appropriate footwear is important for people with CMT, but they often have difficulty finding well-fitting shoes because of their high arched feet and hammered toes. For this reason, custom-made shoes are often necessary. Large shoe stores often have pedorthists on staff who are certified in fitting shoes for the special foot. They can cast the foot for custom-made shoes or design inserts to make ready-made shoes fit more correctly.
Because of lack of good sensory reception in the feet, CMT patients may also need to see a podiatrist for help in trimming nails or removing calluses that develop on the pads of the feet. It is important to consult a medical professional so that the patient does not injure himself/herself doing these procedures.
The final decision a patient might make in caring for his/her foot or leg deformities is to have surgery. Many patients choose to stabilize their feet or correct progressive problems. These procedures include straightening and pinning the toes, lowering the arch, and sometimes, fusing the ankle joint to provide stability. Recovery from these surgeries can be long and sometimes difficult. Before considering surgery, a patient should always ask what the benefits may reasonably be considered to be and that must be weighed against the problems that might be incurred.
An additional CMT-related problem that needs to be addressed by a medical professional is pain. Pain might be sharp and sudden or the gnawing, continuous ache of chronic pain. Some pain is associated with dysfunctional nerves that fire off sporadically and some can be attributed to weakened and poorly functioning muscles. Joints and ligaments in the feet and ankles are often painful because of the extra strain put on them by other muscles that have been rendered useless by CMT. Because the causes of pain vary, so will the treatments. No one, however, should be told that there is no pain associated with CMT, since pain is experienced in a very personal and individual way.
Although medical professionals are involved in many stages and forms of treatment, patients are responsible for much of the management of their CMT. Basically, people with CMT are healthy individuals who must work to maintain that health. Because circulation is a problem, people must take care to keep their hands and feet as warm as possible. They also should take extra care to avoid falling because fractures take longer to heal in someone with an underlying disease process. Additionally, the resulting inactivity may cause the CMT to worsen. Falls can generally be avoided by watching where one walks and by wearing appropriate footwear.
There is no magic nutritional diet to treat CMT, but it is important for CMT patients to control their weight. Not only does extra weight make physical activity more difficult, but it also increases the stress on already compromised joints and muscles.
It is also important for patients to maintain as much strength and flexibility as possible. Generally, patients should consult a physical therapist or physician before beginning an exercise program, and avoid strenuous activity and overwork. Moderate activity and physical exercise can be beneficial, but patients must be conscious of their physical limitations. Patients must learn to say no to tasks that overwhelm them and to delegate tasks to other members of their family when possible.
Finally, stress management is important in maintaining a healthy body. Any disabling condition can affect the way people think and feel about themselves, but having a chronic illness like CMT, which is often unseen, places stress on individuals and often causes depression. People with CMT can suffer from low self-esteem and relationships with others can be affected. Even when a person has learned to live with CMT, the progressive nature of the disorder may bring about more loss and grief over the loss.
Some patients cope successfully on their own or with the support of family and friends; others find it therapeutic to talk to a professional counselor or to participate in a support group.