Multiple sclerosis has made my once-dominant hand less so

How MS has affected this columnist's hand and grip strength

Benjamin Hofmeister avatar

by Benjamin Hofmeister |

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I am not left-handed!

No, I’m not channeling Westley or Inigo from “The Princess Bride,” just clarifying a common — and fair — assumption. While I now do nearly everything left-handed, including eating, drinking, and even typing this column, my right hand was dominant for most of my life.

I still consider myself to be right-handed. If I’m filling out medical paperwork (ironically, with my left hand), that’s still the box I check. However, with only about 25% use remaining in my right hand and 70% or so in the other, my left has become my dominant hand. It’s not by nature, nurture, or even choice. It seems that multiple sclerosis (MS) even gets to decide which hand I use primarily.

I suppose I should count myself fortunate that even though the transition was forced on me, it was gradual. It was also somewhat natural because I’ve always made an effort to employ my left hand and arm as best I could.

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Practicing ambidexterity comes in handy

Even as a child, it seemed odd to me to have one hand do everything while the other just watched. My fork was on the left side of my plate, so I thought the hand on that side should use it rather than just pass it to the other one. I never put much effort into learning to write legibly with my left hand, but people said I didn’t do that with the right one, either. My right was still very much my dominant hand, but my left did a lot more than hold nails or scratch places my right couldn’t.

Later, in the Army, this practice came in handy (pun intended). I helped teach several courses in between overseas tours, and we made a point of having students occasionally perform critical tasks with their nondominant hand. We figured that the time to figure out if you could, or how best to do so, shouldn’t be at the moment your life depended on it.

I must’ve practiced a lot because my ability impressed a visiting instructor. He saw me demonstrate something with my right hand, then switch hands and do it again with my left, after which he remarked, “You can do that with either hand? I had no idea you were amphibious.”

I’m not, by the way. I’m not ambidextrous, either. I’ve never used my hands equally or interchangeably. I just put effort into using my left as something more than a wedding ring holder, and it’s served me well since multiple sclerosis affects my right side more.

My left hand isn’t untouched by MS, just less touched. My right wants to curl into a fist as it tires, which seems to happen more often these days. I’ve noticed, with some distress, the start of that in my left hand.

My fine motor skills are almost nonexistent in both hands, and while I don’t feel like my sensation is dulled, I drop things often. That seems to be a proprioception issue. My grip strength is diminished, but still there; I just can’t tell how hard I’m holding on to something. Weighted utensils help, partly because of the weight’s added sensation and partly because I’m scared to drop a massive fork in my lap.

As with so many other things that multiple sclerosis throws my way, I’m glad I can work around it. But I’m not thrilled to be forced to do so. If I were truly ambidextrous, I’d be proud of it. Instead, this disease has made me what I’ve decided to dub “MSbidextrous” — a helpful but unwanted switch of hand dominance due to multiple sclerosis.


Note: 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 other 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. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Multiple Sclerosis News Today or its parent company, BioNews, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to multiple sclerosis.

Comments

Mark Genco avatar

Mark Genco

Wow, ditto but the opposite way around, left was dominant in the past. I find with my legs too, the dominant was my right when I played football (soccer) but it is my worst affected...basically i've swapped around!!
I wonder if this is a common trait of MS?

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Benjamin Hofmeister avatar

Benjamin Hofmeister

Hi Mark! I've wondered the same thing. MS does seem to start with one side (corresponding to a hemisphere of the brain). Mine started with my right foot and worked its way up to my waist before I started noticing it on the left. I wondered too if there's a tendency for our dominant sides to be affected first, but there's nothing to support that (that I've found). I also considered that maybe we just notice deficiencies on the dominant side more, but it's not really that either.

Ben

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Diane Altukhaim avatar

Diane Altukhaim

Thanks for your article! I have the same experience. Always have been right handed, but now my right hand is slower and weaker, right foot has foot drop. I thought it was just my MS life now. Thanks for sharing.

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Benjamin Hofmeister avatar

Benjamin Hofmeister

Thanks for reading it Diane! It's a shame that we used to call our arms and legs, "right and left", but MS has renamed them, "good and bad".

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Dave Encinas avatar

Dave Encinas

23 years Navy and 10 building Caterpillar tractors. MS finally got me at 66. My latest manifestation is loss of sensation, and the loss of function that goes with it.

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Benjamin Hofmeister avatar

Benjamin Hofmeister

Hi Dave! I should probably make a Navy joke but I can't find it in me. I have no problem picking on Marines though.

It's weird, my sensation seems to be mostly there, hot, cold, hard, soft, etc, but I have to look at my hands sometimes to "know" that I'm holding onto something.

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Roberta Sloniker avatar

Roberta Sloniker

Hello Mark,

I’m left handed and thankfully my right side is the side that is affected. I was diagnosed in 1994 but had symptoms as early as 1980. I have, I’m guessing about 90 percent in my left hand but I’m thinking only 25 percent in my right. I’m 80 years old and feel blessed to still be walking with a walker.

Thank you, Roberta

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Brian O’Neill avatar

Brian O’Neill

I have also been “forced” to use my left side. The right (dominant) side doesn’t have the fine tuning. I also use my left foot on the accelerator pecdal—oh well, it could be a lot worse! Thanks for sharing.

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Benjamin Hofmeister avatar

Benjamin Hofmeister

Thanks for the comment Brian! It could be a lot better too 😆.

Ben

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Catherine Lester avatar

Catherine Lester

Hi Ben,
I'm the same as you! MS symptoms first started in my right hand and arm 24 years ago. I have weakness in my right hand/arm, constant tingling in my hand, and often can't tell what I am touching with my hand without looking - which is a pain if I am trying to find a hanky in my pocket. I gradually started to use my left hand more until I found I could do most things with my left - except write. Some people assume I'm naturally left-handed, but it still seems strange for me to look down and see my left hand doing the heavy lifting. I try to look after my left-hand very well indeed!

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Benjamin Hofmeister avatar

Benjamin Hofmeister

Hi Catherine! I sign into physical therapy with my left hand and it looks like a child did it with a crayon. My fine motor skills with either hand are about gone. At least I'm ambi...not dexterous.

Ben

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