'I do miss dancing': Calgary patient sold on tongue-tingler neural therapy

Patient Isaac Kohtakangas uses the PONS ((Portable Neuromodulation Stimulator) device during a rehabilitation session in Calgary at Synaptic, Spinal Cord Injury and Neurological Rehabilitation Centre. Calgary, Alberta on Monday, August 19, 2019. Kohtakangas says he has improved balance and confidence since undergoing a new neurological treatment to battle his multiple sclerosis.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Dave Chidley

CALGARY - Isaac Kohtakangas just cleared several hurdles to becoming more self-sufficient as he lives with multiple sclerosis.

The 38-year-old business intelligence analyst from Calgary has completed 14 weeks of neurological treatment at the city's Synaptic Spinal Cord Injury and Neuro Rehabilitation Centre.

The hurdles were literal — eight green barriers, about 15 centimetres off the ground, that Kohtakangas high stepped over with the use of two poles.

"It's less about leaning on (them) for support and more about just balancing myself so I'm upright," he said.

It wasn't something he could have done before he began therapy in August.

"It's definitely helped me with balance. I feel more confident and stable on my feet. I'm more aware of where my body is in space when I'm standing and walking, and I'm able to catch myself if I'm a little bit off," he said.

Navigating life is just simpler, he said. "Getting in and out of the car is easier and being able to lift my legs up over the door edge, getting around in a restaurant ... between chairs and in tight spaces."

A device called PoNS — short for portable neuromodulation stimulator — sits on the surface of the tongue and delivers mild, high-frequency electrical impulses while a patient undergoes an intense regimen of daily physiotherapy. The hope is the tiny tingles lead to neuroplasticity and encourage new neural connections.

Clinics in Surrey, B.C., and in Montreal also offer the therapy.

Kohtakangas was diagnosed in 2011 with the autoimmune disease, which attacks myelin, the protective covering of the nerves, causing inflammation and often damage and disruption of nerve impulses.

He had to complete the last 12 weeks of the program at home, morning and night.

"I do not miss it. I dreaded PoNS for the amount of time that it involved. It was like having homework every day and it was never homework that I could put off until the next day. I had to do it that night. I had to do it in the morning."

The executive director of Synaptic said Kohtakangas has definitely improved.

"All of the functional measures we used at the beginning and measured through to the end have shown significant clinical improvement, so we're really excited for him," said Uyen Nguyel.

"Probably the biggest areas of improvements would be his balance and his co-ordination through his walking — even his walking speed and his endurance."

Kohtakangas said the therapy isn't cheap. He had to pay $22,000 out of pocket, but since he no longer drives, he considered the cost the same as if he'd bought a car.

Some of the paces he was put through resembled dance steps.

"I was getting some kidding about that during the therapy," he laughed.

"I've done a little bit at home, some two-stepping a little bit ... I do miss dancing and I haven't done that for quite a while."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 15, 2019.

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