Multiple Sclerosis and Occupational Therapy: What You Need To Know

Table of Contents
View All
Table of Contents

Multiple sclerosis (MS) is an autoimmune disease that affects the central nervous system. In MS, the body’s immune system attacks the myelin, or protective coating, of the nerves. When the nerves are damaged by these attacks, lesions form and disrupt the normal signals from the body to the brain. Depending on where the lesions form, a variety of symptoms can occur, including numbness, tingling, vision problems, and difficulty walking.

Though MS is an unpredictable disease with no cure, there are ways to improve your quality of life. One of the ways to improve quality of life is through occupational therapy (OT). Unlike physical therapy, which only addresses full-body strength and mobility, occupational therapy encompasses all aspects of daily life. Occupational therapy can help people living with MS adapt to their changing bodies and learn to live well with their symptoms.

Older man lifting weights during occupational therapy

 Terry Vine / Getty Images

Multiple Sclerosis Symptoms

MS affects each person differently. No two people will experience the exact same symptoms.

MS symptoms may come on suddenly or develop over time. Depending on the severity and type of MS, some symptoms may appear then disappear.

Though the course of MS is unpredictable, MS symptoms usually begin with:

  • Vision problems: MS can cause blurred or double vision, or even optic neuritis, which can cause pain or loss of sight.
  • Muscle weakness and stiffness: This often occurs in the hands and legs but can appear elsewhere, making it difficult to move around.
  • Tingling, numbness, or pain: This can be felt in the arms, legs, torso, or face.
  • Bladder problems: It may be difficult to control the bladder.
  • Dizziness: This can come and go or be constant.

As MS progresses, more symptoms can develop. These include but aren’t limited to:

  • Fatigue. This can be physical or mental. Fatigue may also occur with early symptoms during a flare or attack. Fatigue occurs in 80% of people with MS.
  • Mood changes. Depression or difficulty controlling emotions can occur.
  • Cognitive difficulties. Multitasking, concentrating, and learning may become harder. Remembering things or making proper judgments may also be difficult.
  • Difficulty walking or standing. Muscle weakness, spasms, and pain may become severe enough that the ability to walk or stand is affected. Some people may experience partial or complete paralysis and require a wheelchair.

Occupational Therapy Benefits for MS

Throughout the course of the disease, the varied symptoms of MS can cause many unpredictable changes to the body and its abilities. Occupational therapy can help you manage each new symptom in a way that makes sense for your body and situation.

Occupational therapy can help with daily living tasks such as cooking or getting dressed, memory or cognition issues, fatigue, and even depression.

An occupational therapist will evaluate your unique case of MS and help determine ways to manage your symptoms to maintain your independence and continue living your life the way you wish.

OT aims to maintain your quality of life, improve your performance at work if you’re still working, strengthen your muscles, raise energy levels, and help with memory and thinking difficulties.

Types of Occupational Treatment for MS

Occupational therapy interventions for multiple sclerosis are meant to improve your entire life. The goal of OT is to help people with MS increase independence, productivity, and safety in all activities that apply to personal and work life.

An occupational therapist will work with you to develop a strategic plan that includes modifications to your home and office to make sure you maintain accessibility, safety, and convenience.

They will also work with you to help you maintain a connection with others and avoid social isolation.

There are various types of occupational treatment that address differing aspects of daily living.

Day-to-Day Activities

There are many options for those dealing with symptoms that interfere with daily activities. Some modifications include:

  • An anti-glare filter on a computer or maximizing contrast and font size on a smartphone can help with vision problems.
  • Everyday tasks such as dressing or brushing your teeth may need to be relearned. If numbness in one arm is getting in the way of dressing, you may learn to dress using one arm only.
  • If you are at risk of falling, your therapist might work to make your home safer by rearranging furniture or adding lighting to a dark staircase.

Strength, Mobility, and Coordination

Occupational therapists can work with you in the same way that physical therapists do to make sure that you maintain strength, mobility, and coordination. They can help formulate an exercise and stretching routine that is appropriate for your circumstances.

Energy Conservation

Fatigue can be a major symptom that affects your ability to participate in work and daily life. OT can help you learn ways to analyze and modify daily activities to conserve energy.

In one study, a person with MS who was going through OT learned to set out their clothes the night before so that getting dressed in the morning would require less energy.  They also learned that sitting down while getting dressed allowed them to save energy.

Use of Adaptive Devices

Learning when to use an adaptive device can help immensely with daily life, and some things you already own and use can be repurposed to help you.

Some examples of adaptive devices include:

  • Canes and walkers: Tools like canes and walkers can assist with walking.
  • Smartphones: If you have difficulty remembering appointments or when to take your medications, you can set reminders on a smartphone.
  • Computers: Learning to shop online can save you trips to the store.
  • Adaptive household items: Many household items have adaptive versions. For example, a wall mounted jar opener can make the task easier if you have difficulty with your hands.

Cognitive Rehabilitation

Cognitive rehabilitation works to improve your cognitive function. Memory games or learning story techniques where you create a story for important information can help you recall facts.

A therapist can help you identify your mental weaknesses and give you exercises to improve them.

Living With Advanced MS

As MS progresses and symptoms limit your capabilities, occupational therapy may become more critical to your daily routine. Not only can a therapist help in all the ways described, but they can also help you learn how to communicate most effectively with an in-home aide. This way, your needs are met in a way that maintains your dignity and sense of independence.

Summary

While living with MS can be difficult, engaging in occupational therapy can help you find ways to manage your symptoms and maintain your independence. If you are struggling with your daily tasks at home or at work, you might find that even simple adjustments can make a world of difference. Occupational therapists can provide guidance on lifestyle changes, physical and mental exercises, and adaptive devices to help you live well.

A Word From Verywell

Being constantly hit with new symptoms and dealing with the unpredictability of MS can easily become overwhelming. Occupational therapy can provide professional guidance to help you navigate the changes in your body and help you feel empowered. If you are going through a difficult time, reach out to your healthcare provider about how occupational therapy can help you.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How much does MS occupational therapy cost?

    Most insurance covers occupational therapy, however you may need a referral from a physician. The out-of-pocket cost for occupational therapy varies depending on the type of coverage you have.

  • What strategies does occupational therapy include for multiple sclerosis?

    OT for MS includes ways to make your daily home and work tasks doable, and provides steps to help enhance independence, mobility, and social interaction.

Was this page helpful?
7 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. National Organization for Rare Disorders. Multiple sclerosis. Updated 2017.

  2. National Multiple Sclerosis Society. MS signs and symptoms.

  3. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. Multiple sclerosis: hope through research. Updated March 25, 2021.

  4. De-Bernardi-Ojuel L, Torres-Collado L, García-de-la-Hera M. Occupational therapy interventions in adults with multiple sclerosis or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis: a scoping reviewInt J Environ Res Public Health. 2021;18(4):1432. doi:10.3390/ijerph18041432

  5. National Multiple Sclerosis Society. Rehabilitation. Updated February 2021.

  6. Preissner K, Arbesman M, Lieberman D. Occupational therapy interventions for adults with multiple sclerosisThe American Journal of Occupational Therapy. 2016;70(3):7003395010p1-7003395010p4. doi:10.5014/ajot.2016.703001 

  7. National Multiple Sclerosis Society. Occupational therapy in multiple sclerosis rehabilitation. Updated 2018.