Burning, tingling, stiffness, itching, numbness — there are many ways multiple sclerosis (MS) causes pain or uncomfortable sensations. People with MS can experience pain of many descriptions — sharp, stabbing, dull, achey — chronically or intermittently in various parts of the body.
Musculoskeletal pain in MS is usually the result of symptoms like muscle weakness and mobility issues, which cause injury and strain. Neuropathic pain is caused by “short circuiting” of the neurons due to nerve damage from MS. One example of pain uniquely experienced by those with MS is the MS hug. The pain of the MS hug ranges in severity from bothersome to agonizing. An MS hug can last for a few seconds or it can be constant, and it affects between 15 percent and 25 percent of all people living with MS.
Alternative therapies and lifestyle changes, such as acupuncture, exercise, massage, and adequate rest, are ways you can help manage your symptoms alongside prescribed treatments.
People who stay active often seem able to reduce the impact of their pain. Finding the right physical activity for you can have a positive impact on your physical and mental health.
Low-intensity exercises and stretching, like yoga and tai chi, help maintain flexibility and increase a person’s range of motion to alleviate muscle tightness. Gentle exercise can also be an effective way to combat the MS hug. Research has shown exercise can slow the progression or lessen the severity of several symptoms of MS, including musculoskeletal pain and muscle spasms. Stretching can also help manage MS leg weakness.
The power of the human mind should never be underestimated. People can train their brain to better control their moods through mindful meditation. Techniques such as deep breathing, mindfulness, and meditation have been found to ease MS pain. One study showed participants in a meditation program had significantly lowered pain levels. Mindfulness can also help reduce anxiety and manage stress, which improves mood and overall mental health.
Mindfulness is about being present in the moment. It can be as simple as taking a moment in the morning to watch a bird in your garden. You may choose to take a mindfulness course to help you with your practice. There are also many mindfulness and meditation apps available to guide you.
Acupuncture is a form of traditional Chinese medicine sometimes used by people with MS to address both physical symptoms and emotional ones. An acupuncture therapist uses fine needles in the skin and muscles to release and redirect the body’s energy, thereby relieving pressure and alleviating stress. Anecdotal evidence suggests acupuncture may help alleviate spasticity and fatigue and generally improve quality of life for those living with MS. Acupuncture may also ease depression and anxiety, and facilitate better sleep. Acupuncture should be administered by a trained, professional acupuncturist in a clean setting with sterile acupuncture needles.
Massage is a bodywork technique used to relax muscle and reduce stress. Massage can help ease muscular tension, improve blood circulation, reduce swelling, and increase your range of motion. Many people find massage brings relief for MS symptoms such as spasticity. There are some instances when massage may not be safe, including if you’re pregnant or you have edema (swelling) or other health complications. Ask your health care team if massage is right for you and if a specific type of massage might be better than others.
Almost half of all people with MS experience some form of sleep disturbance. Not only can sleep disturbances affect your physical MS symptoms, they can also affect your mental health by exacerbating depression and anxiety. Sleep deprivation can leave you with lowered capacity to cope with MS symptoms. Poor sleep can lead to low energy levels or exacerbate pain, muscle spasms, and fatigue. Simple sleep hygiene habits like establishing a calming nighttime routine, avoiding screen time before bed, and keeping your sleeping quarters at a slightly cooler temperature can improve how much and how well you sleep.
Nyaka’s bio: Nyaka Mwanza is a freelance writer for MyHealthTeams. She completed a B.A. in Communications: Visual Media from American University and undertook post-baccalaureate studies in Health/Behavioral Communications and Marketing at Johns Hopkins University. Nyaka is a Zambian-born, E.U. citizen who was raised in sub-Saharan Africa and Jacksonville, N.C. However, she has called Washington, D.C., home for most of her life. For much of her career, Nyaka has worked with large global health nonprofits focused on improving health outcomes for women and children. Nyaka believes words hold immense power, and her job is to meet the reader where they are, when they’re there.