MS Spasticity and You: Five Stretches You Should Try (and Why)

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by Mike Knight |

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An estimated 85 percent of people with MS experience some type of spasticity due to the disease, according to a recent report (p/w) published in Multiple Sclerosis and Related Disorders.

Why is that important? Because spasticity is behind many of the disease’s most debilitating physical, emotional and mental challenges.

According to the Multiple Sclerosis Association of America, spasticity is “a tightness or stiffness of the muscles” that occurs most commonly in the legs, groin and buttocks and occasionally in the back, muscles that profoundly affect our ability to stand upright, walk and balance ourselves.

Worse, spasticity’s effects can negatively influence quality of life in those with MS, and can lead to anxiety, depression and low self-esteem, while affecting relationships, employment, fatigue, bladder dysfunction and more.

Since spasticity tends to affect lower extremities more, these stretches focus on hips, calves, ankles and feet. They are meant to be introductions to stretching routines that may alleviate spasticity but are by no means comprehensive or make up a complete routine (see your physical therapist for that).

For free, illustrated guides that you may download and print, go here and here. And as with any new exercise, please consult an MS specialist, doctor or physical therapist before trying any of these.

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Hip crossovers
The goal of this stretch is to decrease tightness in the hips by stretching and lengthening your hip muscles. Though there are variations of it, the basic idea is to lie on your back and if possible, bend your knees into a 45° angle, pull them together and then gently let both knees slowly rotate to one side, holding the stretch for 30 seconds.

Keep your arms to the side (like the letter “T”), palms down. The goal is to stretch your hips, not to force your knees to the floor (in general, never force your body to do any stretch or exercise).

As with all of the stretches listed here, adherence to form is critical, so go slowly!

Hip flexor stretch
According the Multiple Sclerosis Society of Canada, “The hip flexors are the muscles on the front of your pelvis. They help leg movement when you walk, kick, climb stairs, or stand. When you are in a seated position for long periods of time, these are the muscles that really need a good stretch.”

This is a nice exercise to do because not only does it stretch the hip flexor, it also has a focus on relaxation, something the National Multiple Sclerosis Society of America emphasizes in its approach to managing spasticity, too. You can also do it while lying on your bed!

  • Lie on your bed on your back so that your knees hang off the edge of the bed.
  • You should feel the stretch in the front of your leg where it attaches to your hip.
  • Hold. Listen to your body to know what an appropriate hold time is for you. Try working up to a 30- to 60-second hold.

Go here for a comprehensive, illustrated set of stretching exercises from the Multiple Sclerosis Society of Canada.

Calf stretch
Mariska Breland is a professional Pilates instructor who also has MS. Here’s how she stretches tight calf muscles: “Place a half foam roller or rolled up towel on the floor, and step on it with the ball of your foot with your heel down on the floor. Step the opposite leg forward, but keep the weight in the back foot. This will be one of the most intense and effective calf stretches you will ever do.” (h/t Katy Bowman.)

Go here for a TheraBand-based calf stretch that you may also find effective.

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Ankle stretch (heel cord stretch)
An easy-to-do stretch that requires only a towel and a bed, according to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, here’s how to do a good ankle stretch that may reduce ankle spasticity that may exacerbate foot drop:

  • Sit on bed or steady chair with your back straight.
  • Let one leg hang down.
  • Put a towel around the bottom of your active foot, lift the leg and pull on the towel with both hands.
  • Hold for 20–30 seconds.
  • Repeat on other side.

For an instructional video that includes ankle stretching, spasticity release and also strengthening, go here.

Foot roll
According to Breland, foot problems in neurological disorders including MS are common because “the feet are the furthest away from the brain. Nerves have to travel from your feet all the way to your brain and back again in order to work correctly.”

Foot rolls using a small rubber ball  may lessen spasticity which may improve balance and mobility, especially in foot drop.

Though the basics are to stand on the ball using each foot while holding onto a chair or some other device for stability, while rolling the ball slowly along each foot, being attentive for spots that seem disengaged. For great instructional video, go here.

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Multiple Sclerosis News Today is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or another qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website.

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