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How Physical Therapy Can Help with Multiple Sclerosis

By Patricia A. Bobryk, MHS, PT, MSCS, ATP, Physical Therapist at Orlando Health

Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a neurological disease that affects more than 2.3 million people worldwide. It’s usually diagnosed between the ages of 20 and 40, and is more common in women. Because MS affects the central nervous system, it can cause a variety of symptoms such as visual, sensory, balance and cognitive issues, as well as weakness and fatigue.

Symptoms of MS can vary from person to person, as can the severity and frequency of those symptoms. Some people experience few symptoms for years, while for others the symptoms are more aggressive. While much about MS is uncertain, what is certain is that physical therapy can help those with MS treat the symptoms and improve the functional outcome of the disease.

How Physical Therapy (PT) Helps

Physical therapy, as part of a rehabilitation team that includes PT, occupational therapy and speech therapy, can help at every stage of MS.

Someone newly diagnosed and with few symptoms might assume they don’t need PT, but this is one of the most important times to get started. A qualified physical therapist can provide information on what to expect from MS and what symptoms to look for that might signal a flare up. Equally important, a physical therapist can help you get started on a good path of health and wellness that will make managing MS easier. You can still be healthy, even with the diagnosis of a chronic illness. The physical therapist can give you information about nutrition, hydration, smoking cessation and the right type of exercise program, tailored specifically for you.

Man receives physical therapy

As the disease advances or after a flare up, a physical therapist can address symptoms as needed. If you develop stiffness, they can recommend effective stretches. If you’re feeling fatigued, they can devise an appropriate strengthening program that builds, not saps, your energy. They will provide a home exercise program that you can use, and they can follow and tailor your treatment throughout the course of the disease.

If at some point, you need to develop functioning skills, such as learning new ways to compensate for weaknesses, your physical therapist can help. That may include strengthening your upper body or learning to use assistive devices to maintain your mobility.

What to Look for in a Physical Therapist

If you have MS, you and your physical therapist can count on having a long relationship, so it is important to find the right person.

Make sure your physical therapist has an expertise in MS, or at least in neurology. A physical therapist at an MS center is ideal because they are trained in the specific needs of someone with the disease. For example, exercise is extremely important for those with MS, however, it should be done so that you do not become overly fatigued. In addition, the exercise shouldn’t cause you to overheat because, for someone with MS, that can cause additional symptoms to develop.

The exercises should be enjoyable—otherwise you, like most of us, won’t do them. And the exercises should change and evolve to meet your ongoing needs.

Your physical therapist should use a team approach, involving occupational therapists and a speech therapist as needed to provide you with holistic support.

MS is a lifelong condition and physical therapy should be considered a lifelong approach that starts at diagnosis and helps you minimize and address your symptoms as they occur and as they change.

Originally published by Orlando Health; reprinted with permission.

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