Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a chronic autoimmune disease that attacks the protective coating on your nerves. These attacks damage and break down the coating, called myelin. As myelin wears away, the communication between your brain and your body may be interrupted. Eventually, MS can damage and destroy the nerves themselves. This damage cannot be reversed.
MS causes a variety of signs and symptoms. The symptoms you may experience depend on how damaged your nerves are and which nerves are being targeted by the disease. The type of MS you have determines how quickly your symptoms progress.
Fortunately, if you have MS, there are ways you can live a stronger, healthier, and more fulfilling life as you learn to cope with your diagnosis and changing body. One way you can achieve this is through occupational therapy.
Occupational therapy (OT) is a healthcare profession that aims to help people with specialized needs live more independently and productively.
Occupational therapy is similar to physical therapy, but there are a few key differences. While physical therapy focuses on overall strength, joint range of motion, coordination, and gross motor skills, occupational therapy focuses on helping you perform everyday activities with greater independence.
Occupational therapists help people live better despite having a disability or illness. They do this by improving the skills needed to accomplish everyday tasks or finding alternative ways to perform them.
Occupational therapy services may include:
- assisting with routine daily activities, like showering, cooking, and getting dressed
- assessing your home and work environment to identify potential hazards and to create a more functional environment that suits your needs
- recommending special equipment or assistive devices for use at home, school, or work
- showing you how to properly use adaptive equipment, like orthotics, braces, or wheelchairs
- helping with budgeting, scheduling, and daily planning
- working with schools or workplaces to ensure you’re meeting your goals
- recommending exercises to strengthen fine motor skills, coordination, and mental alertness
- teaching you skills for stress management
Occupational therapy can help you learn how to care for yourself when living with MS. Below are some examples of how you can benefit.
Help with day-to-day activities
One of the main goals of occupational therapy is to help you lead a more independent life. When you have MS, even routine activities can be challenging. An occupational therapist can give you the tools you need to perform day-to-day tasks more efficiently.
- using the bathroom
- taking medications
- getting dressed
- meal prep
This is especially important when the symptoms of MS affect your memory, concentration, and organization, or make you constantly fatigued.
Teaching you how to conserve energy
One of the biggest challenges for people living with MS is energy conservation. Exerting yourself or becoming physically exhausted can be disabling if you have MS. It could cause your MS to flare, or could make a flare worse. This is a concern because it’s not always possible to recover from the damage caused by a flare.
Occupational therapists can help people with MS learn to use their energy and abilities in ways that are beneficial, not harmful. An occupational therapist can also help you identify tools and techniques that will help to simplify tasks and reduce the burden on your body.
Setting up adaptive devices at work, school, and home
One of the most important tasks of an occupational therapist is to evaluate how you interact with your work, school, and home environment. The therapist can then identify ways to improve these interactions based on your personalized needs.
There are hundreds of different adaptive or assistive technologies and gadgets available to promote independence. Your occupational therapist can recommend which ones will help you the most.
Examples of adaptive and assistive devices that could help someone with MS include:
- wheelchairs, canes, and walkers
- bathroom equipment, like grab bars, to prevent falls
- devices that improve driving safety and comfort
- weighted utensils to counteract tremors
- a “reacher” tool for picking up items off the floor
- reading and writing aids, like pencil grips
- jar openers
- visual aids, like magnifying readers
- computer screen reader software
Improving strength and coordination
Many people with MS lose strength or coordination in the hands. This can make even the simplest of tasks, like buttoning a shirt, very difficult. An occupational therapist can teach you exercises for improving the strength and range of motion of your hands.
An occupational therapist will also know about the adaptive technologies available to help meet your needs and overcome a lack of hand strength.
An occupational therapist can evaluate you for issues with memory, concentration, or problem-solving. They can then find ways to compensate for these issues.
Your occupational therapist may recommend computerized cognitive training. They may also teach you to use smartphone apps to help you remember important events or manage your finances.
Talk with your doctor about seeing an occupational therapist. Anyone with MS can benefit from the discussion.
If you were recently diagnosed
On your first visit, the occupational therapist will conduct an exam in order to establish a baseline for your abilities. This will help them know what your limitations are.
Later, the occupational therapist may visit your home and workplace to get a sense of your environment. This allows the therapist to evaluate your specific needs and recommend ways to improve your accessibility and mobility.
Taking all of this into account, you and the therapist will begin working together to establish techniques and strategies for helping you ensure greater independence for as long as possible.
If you have advanced MS
Patients who have had the disease for a number of years may have already lost some abilities because of the disease’s progression. It’s still important to see an occupational therapist.
Energy conservation grows more and more important, especially as the disease progresses. An occupational therapist can help you find ways to maintain your independence while caring for yourself without risking greater damage to your body.
Not everyone with MS will need an occupational therapist. You should consider asking your doctor for a referral to an occupational therapist if you find that your MS symptoms:
- affect your ability to perform day-to-day tasks or take good care of yourself
- make it difficult to be productive at work or school
- prevent you from enjoying hobbies or pastimes
With a referral from your doctor, most insurance plans will cover occupational therapy services.