Did you know that simply by reading this sentence alone, you’re working six muscles in each eye to keep control of your vision? If you clicked onto this page, the simply pressing down on your mouse will have meant multiple muscles running from your fingers to your shoulder were at work. Our bodies are made of over 600 muscles, all of which are constantly contracting in length to help control our movements, whether these movements are as small as typing out a text, or as big as diving into a swimming pool.
Muscle spasms or stiffness affect at least one in five of people with MS at some point in time. Many people living with MS, particularly at more advanced phases of the condition, will experience muscle weakness, which can make it challenging to walk or stay mobile.
Muscle weakness, spasms and stiffness - what’s the difference?
Damage to the nerve fibers that help control muscles can, over time, lead to muscle weakness. This commonly happens when the muscles are deconditioned from lack of use. Often in MS, due to symptoms such as fatigue, pain and imbalance, a person’s ability to remain mobile becomes less over time. This can cause the muscles to become weak, which is known as muscle weakness.
This is a separate to muscle stiffness and spasms, which are also known as spasticity. Sometimes it can be confusing when people use different words to explain the same symptoms. Spasticity or muscle stiffness refers to the feelings of “stiffness”. Sudden movements or muscle contractions that are involuntary are known as muscle spasms. People living with MS sometimes can experience this in many ways such as when a foot taps repetitively on the floor. Sometimes, muscle spasms can cause problems at night, making it more difficult to sleep. It’s important for people living with MS to get a good night’s sleep to help manage symptoms like fatigue and weakness.
Caring for your muscles
Looking after our muscles is a catch 22 – if they’re playing up then those are the days when our instincts are to curl up on the sofa, but it’s important to try and keep them moving every couple of hours. If you notice regular problems with your muscles or discomfort is becoming more consistent, symptoms get worse, it’s important to speak to your doctor to see what options are available for you. The goal will be to use the affected muscles as much as possible and in the safest way possible to help them keep more active.
Other ways in which you can help your muscle weakness is through a combination of cardio and strength training exercises, which can help to give you more energy. As muscles become weak when they are not used often, resistance exercise such as lifting weights can help to strengthen them.
A physical therapist can help you develop an exercise program that meets your requirements and keeps in mind your MS! They can also show you how to do these exercises. Speak to your doctor to learn more.
Gentle exercise on a regular basis is the best possible way of keeping muscle strength up and avoiding weakness developing over time. This doesn’t have to mean tearing up a sports pitch every day, but simple exercises once a week can make a huge difference - just listen to your body and don’t push it further than you can. These exercises include:
The symptoms of muscle weakness may change over time, it’s important for you to track your symptoms and discuss these changes with your doctor.