Symptom Series: Spasticity

Get the details and learn some tips that may help

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Multiple sclerosis (MS) affects everyone differently. No two people have the exact same symptoms or experiences with the disease. Since MS affects the nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord, you may have a wide range of symptoms. Some are visible and can be seen by others. Others are invisible and are only seen or felt by the person with MS.

Through our MS Symptom Series, we’ll provide some information and tips about different symptoms to discuss with your healthcare team. Remember, your healthcare team should be your primary source for information or any questions.

People with multiple sclerosis (MS) may experience some invisible symptoms. These are symptoms that may not be seen or noticed by others but are felt in the body. In mild cases, spasticity may only be noticed by the person experiencing issues.

People experiencing spasticity can have sudden, uncontrolled muscle contractions or spasms. The degree of these spasms may vary from mild muscle stiffness to more severe and painful spasms. Spasticity generally occurs in the legs, but it can also appear in the lower back, joints, and other extremities.

Spasticity problems are caused by damage to nerves in the brain or spinal cord and may affect a person’s ability to maintain smooth muscle movement. For people with MS, the immune system attacks the central nervous system, including the protective coating around nerves called myelin. Because the nerves aren’t as well protected, they are more sensitive and may not send signals smoothly.

Normally, the muscles take turns relaxing and contracting. But when there is nerve damage, too many muscles can contract at the same time. This can lead to an involuntary bending of the hips or knees, or a rigid straightening of the legs.

Here are some tips that may help with spasticity:

There are a number of things to consider that may help increase joint movements and flexibility while relieving spasticity. Since everyone’s experience is different, it’s important to work on a personalized plan with your healthcare team.

Stretch your muscles

One of the most effective ways to relieve spasticity is slow, controlled stretching that is held for up to a minute. If you have a physical therapist, he or she may create an exercise plan that involves stretching and range-of-motion exercises for you to do at home. Cooling devices or ice packs may also be used to help ease overstressed muscles.

Get in the water

Aquatic exercises can offer many benefits. The weightlessness you experience helps take pressure off of your muscles and joints, so you can focus on stretching. The perfect water temperature is around 85°F. Remember to talk to your healthcare team to develop a plan that fits your comfort and ability level.

Practice relaxation

Relieving spasticity is all about relaxing your body, so techniques including the gradual tensing and releasing of muscles can help. Additionally, things like deep breathing exercises, meditation, and even acupuncture could be part of your overall plan.

Try an orthotic device

Ask your healthcare team about devices such as finger or toe spreaders, splints, and braces that may help make it easier to keep your legs or other limbs in the right positions. These should be professionally fitted for you.

Consider occupational therapy

Different from a physical therapist, an occupational therapist can give you individual tips, exercises, and home modifications to help make daily life with spasticity easier. For example, he or she may recommend replacing small drawer handles with larger knobs.

Spasticity is a common symptom of MS, but there are many things you can try to help. Always talk to your healthcare team about what you’re experiencing. Together, you may be able to find solutions that can make you more comfortable.

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