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MS Symptoms: Keeping Back Pain Under Control

What is multiple sclerosis?

Key points

  1. Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a chronic disease that affects your central nervous system.
  2. Back pain is a common symptom of MS.
  3. Exercise, physical therapy, medication, or other treatments may help relieve your pain.

Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a chronic disease that affects your central nervous system. A healthy individual’s nerves are covered with a protective coating called myelin. MS destroys this myelin, leaving your nerve fibers exposed. The unprotected nerve fibers don’t work as well as protected nerves. This can affect many areas and functions of your body, including movement, vision, and cognitive function.

Back pain is one of many symptoms associated with MS. A variety of treatments may help alleviate your pain.

What causes MS-related back pain?

Causes

If you have MS, you may experience back pain for a number of reasons. For example, it may result from spasticity. This is a type of extreme tightness that’s common in people with MS. Incorrectly using mobility aids can also put pressure on your back. This can lead to poor posture and pain. Your back may also become sore if you struggle with balance or mobility, or walk in an unnatural pattern.

Sometimes your back hurts for reasons that aren’t related to MS. For example, unrelated muscle strain or a herniated disk can result in pain. If you have MS, you won’t be able to compensate for this back pain as well as others might.

How is MS-related back pain treated?

Treatment

To treat MS-related back pain, your doctor may recommend one or more of the following:

  • medications
  • exercise
  • physical therapy
  • occupational therapy
  • water therapy
  • alternative treatments

Medications

Your doctor will likely try to determine the root cause of your back pain before recommending specific medications. To treat pain from muscle strains, they may recommend over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medications, such as ibuprofen or naproxen. If you have spasticity (stiff muscles and spasms), they may prescribe drugs to relax the muscles, such as baclofen and tizanidine.

Exercise

Exercise might sound unappealing when you’re experiencing back pain, but it can be an effective treatment. Gentle stretching can help reduce pain in many people. Exercising may also help relieve depression, boost your energy levels, and combat the fatigue that’s common in people with MS. Work with your doctor or physical therapist to create a workout program that fits your needs and abilities.

Physical and occupational therapy

Rehabilitative therapies, such as physical therapy (PT) and occupational therapy (OT), are important for anyone with MS, not just those who have back pain. These therapies will help keep you as flexible, mobile, and active as possible. They can also teach you how to conserve your energy and move your body more efficiently.

A physical therapist can teach you exercises to help relieve some of your MS-related symptoms. For example, they may teach you how to stretch tight muscles to alleviate back pain. They may also recommend gait training to help you learn how to walk more easily.

An occupational therapist can teach you how to adapt your home, work, and lifestyle to meet your changing needs. For example, they can teach you how to integrate adaptive aids into your daily habits and environments, as well as how to use them correctly. This may prevent back pain that’s related to muscle strain or poor posture.

Water therapy

Your doctor may also recommend water therapy to treat MS-related back pain. Spending time in a heated pool may give your sore muscles a chance to relax. The warmth and buoyancy of the water may soothe and support joints that are stiff and weak.

Water aerobics may also be a good choice, offering the best of both worlds: a cocoon of warm water and a form gentle exercise that can help promote balance and coordination. Water exercises may even help alleviate the low energy levels that are common in people with MS. Check with your doctor or physical therapist before enrolling in a water aerobics class.

Complementary treatments

If conventional treatments aren’t enough to keep your back pain under control, or you prefer an alternative approach, ask your doctor about complementary treatments. For example, in a review published in the Clinical Journal of Pain, researchers suggest that acupuncture may be effective for treating lower back pain. Research reported in the International Journal of General Medicine has also found that massage therapy can alleviate back pain.

Talk to your doctor before adding acupuncture, massage therapy, or other complementary therapies to your treatment plan.

What’s the outlook for MS-related back pain?

Outlook

If you have MS, pain is a symptom that you’ll likely deal with throughout your life. Lean on your medical team, friends, and family when your back pain is at its worst. Being active and keeping a positive attitude may help you through the challenges you encounter.

Ask your doctor for more information about your specific condition, treatment options, and long-term outlook.

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