MS Spasticity: Down With the Stiffness
Last updated: January 2023
Today is one of those days that required an extra cup of coffee for me to even think about going through with my normal routine. No, it’s not MS-related fatigue slowing me down this time, it’s that I had a terrible time getting to sleep. The reason for that was an MS symptom that is fairly common, but perhaps not discussed enough: spasticity.
MS-related muscle stiffness in my legs
My lack of sleep last night was caused by the muscles in my legs becoming uncontrollably stiff to the point that, in addition to having trouble moving, I was in extreme pain. Problems with my muscles not doing what I want them to do is a pretty common situation for me. In the past, I’ve delved into the spasms I suffer from. Today, I want to discuss the other side of these muscle symptoms: the tightness and stiffness that can occur.
What is spasticity?
With regards to MS, spasticity is the tightness or stiffness of muscles due to them being involuntarily contracted. The muscles contract because the nerves that help control those muscles have had the insulative myelin surrounding them damaged. Damage to these areas can cause spasms, but it can also cause our muscles to be tight, stiff, or even feel heavy. The severity of this can range from mild to severe and have some significant impact on the afflicted person.
Pain from muscles tightening
For those with severe spasticity, the condition can be extremely painful. Having your muscles uncontrollably stay tightened or flexed hurts. Just last night, the muscles in my thighs were so tight, they were rock hard to the touch. That hurts! Imagine someone flexing their muscles; picture a bodybuilder doing it. They’re typically straining and grimacing while they do it because our muscles aren’t meant to stay in a certain position and at a certain tension for an extended period of time. The longer a bodybuilder holds a pose, the harder and more painful it is. For someone with spasticity from MS, their body is holding those poses and causing pain but they can’t control it, they can’t stop it.
When our muscles become stiff and tight, our movement can be severely hampered. This is something you can demonstrate to yourself just by taking note of the muscles that you use when you are walking. It takes multiple muscles working together to take a step. If just one of those muscles becomes tight or stiff, you won’t be able to move the same way. This can lead to falls or even make it impossible to move at all.
Spasticity can cause fatigue
Sometimes our muscles may not seem rock hard with stiffness, but they still seem pretty tight. The severity of the tightness may even be light enough that you can’t even really perceive it. Whether it’s heavy or mild, when your body is fighting against that stiffness, your body is expending more energy than it normally would had those muscles not been affected. This can be one of the causes of fatigue for people with MS, and many don’t even realize it. I know a number of people who have addressed their spasticity and it dramatically lessened their fatigue.
Muscle stiffness can offset muscle weakness
It seems rare to mention that an MS symptom can be beneficial. However, depending on one’s other symptoms, a certain level of muscle stiffness can actually be helpful. Another common MS symptom is muscle weakness. For those suffering with weakness, particularly in their legs, having some muscle stiffness can actually help them move around a bit better and offset their weakness.
People who suffer from spasticity do have options. Physical therapy can be extremely helpful in combating the symptom. Stretching and exercise (swimming seems to be beneficial to several people I’ve spoken to) are also beneficial. A variety of medications can be prescribed that help with spasticity, too (Baclofen being a very common example). Others, myself included, have benefited from medical marijuana to combat these muscle conditions.
Just be aware
I think when it comes to muscle issues and MS, people are quick to point out spasms and weakness as being big baddies. There are, however, plenty of people that also experience tightness and stiffness. It’s also not uncommon for someone with MS to experience all of these issues at once (and I am someone who has fallen into that category at times). It’s important to be aware of spasticity, particularly because it can be the root cause of other issues (like pain and fatigue). Properly treating spasticity can have cascading benefits for other problems we have.
Do you suffer from spasticity? If stiff, tight, or heavy feelings in your muscles, no matter how severe, are something you experience, I’d love to hear about it in the comments below!
Thanks so much for reading and always feel free to share!
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