MS Springs: Spasticity & Spasms

By Stacie Prada

Spring is a time of fresh starts and emerging from winter. Spring is a season, a mindset, and a promise of better days ahead. Lately, spring for me is the overreaction my arms and legs give for a slight touch. Reflexes that have always overreacted to the tap on the shin or elbow are now exaggerated to a point that seems almost comical for the physical threat they pose to anyone within reach.

Spring now correlates with spasticity and spasms for me. The energy and movements my limbs release are disproportionate to the touch that triggers them. A limb’s quick return to original position and residual spasms mimic the vibration and cartoonish boing of a spring as it comes to rest.

My spasticity isn’t what I anticipated from the descriptions I’d researched over the years.

I remember wanting to know if my vague symptoms were spasticity. I look back to medical forms I filled out asking where the pain was, and I consistently circled my calf muscles and the underside of my forearms.  To my neurologist, I described my arms as cramping and my legs as being “clompy” in the morning. The first few feet of walking were jerky and unreliable. I’d go slow and touch the bed or walls to help with balance. My movements resembled a less than graceful horse trotting since my legs jerked forward in a way that isn’t ideal for humans.

With hopes of knowing what to expect as my multiple sclerosis symptoms progress, I soaked up any information I could find on spasticity. Online information described it as a stiffening of the muscles, and that is part of my experience. Muscles are tightening and take more effort to stretch. Getting my legs and arms moving fluidly in the morning is a process. 

I’d understood spasticity could disrupt sleep for the restlessness legs experience. The inability to relax and fall asleep made sense. I didn’t realize that a deep slumber could be violently terminated for an innocent and slight movement of the blankets or a light touch on my arm or leg from my partner on the other side of the bed. Suddenly wide awake in the dark of the night, my physical condition is impossible to ignore. Spasms are painful, frustrating and depressing. Practicing mindfulness and relaxation helps put perspective to the situation.

I can still do so much. Hiking, biking, and jogging are still possible for me. During the day, the neurological misfires from my brain through my spinal cord to my arms and legs are usually invisible. Yet sometimes they emerge unpredictably and embarrassingly.

I’m getting better at explaining how my body works to people close to me. I need to. The swift reaction of limbs can feel violent and rejecting.  Whether my arm or leg jerks away from them or pushes them away from me, it comes across as a disproportionate and angry reaction. As with many MS issues, the physical aspect of a body not working ideally is only one part of the process of dealing with MS. How I feel about it, how it can affect my future, and deciding whether to share my experience in my relationships is a whole other thing.

I’m learning stretching throughout the day every day is necessary and nonnegotiable. Flexible movements that were once easy are now difficult and painful. I still have hope that working on this from every angle available will improve flexibility, reduce pain and reverse some of the impacts from the many lesions in my spinal cord.

MSAA has a terrific reference page on Spasticity (stiffness), and passively stretching specific muscles at least a minute is an important recommendation to know and use. Aqua therapy and medications can help a lot.

I’m a big fan of complementary therapy, and most of the treatments listed below are things I do daily or regularly. When I start noticing increased symptoms, often I realize I’ve lapsed doing something on the list. Make sure to discuss any treatments with your doctor first!

  1. Hydrate throughout the day. Stop or slow down drinking fluids a couple hours before bed time to minimize nightly bathroom breaks.
  2. Stretch throughout the day
  3. Physical therapy exercises tailored to individual needs.
  4. Relaxed minute-long passive stretches or yoga for mind-body connection and muscle care
  5. Walk, swim, move in an environment you enjoy
  6. Eat a banana a day for the potassium, magnesium and nutrition (supplements haven’t been as effective for me)
  7. Topical lotions, body wash and sprays with magnesium, CBD oil or sport relief purposes 
  8. Support limbs with pillows or blankets when resting or sleeping
  9. Magnesium supplements
  10. Vinegar based treatments such as pickle juice, apple cider vinegar or homeopathy formulas for stopping leg and foot cramps
  11. Medications such as Baclofen or Botox

I recognize that so many people with MS have it a lot harder than I do, and what I’m doing won’t be enough for them to find relief. I appreciate learning from them for how they manage their physical health and mental well-being. My heart goes out to them for living with MS in times when medical advancements and treatments were fewer than they are today. My aim is to manage my own health as best as possible, and my hope is to live long enough to see better days for all of us.

*Stacie Prada was diagnosed with RRMS in 2008 just shy of 38 years old. Her blog, “Keep Doing What You’re Doing” is a compilation of inspiration, exploration, and practical tips for living with multiple sclerosis while living a full, productive, and healthy life with a positive perspective. It includes musings on things that help her adapt, cope and rejoice in this adventure on earth. Please visit her at http://stacieprada.blogspot.com/

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About MSAA

As a national nonprofit organization, the Multiple Sclerosis Association of America is a leading resource for the entire MS community, improving lives today through vital services and support. MSAA provides free programs and services, such as: a toll-free Helpline; award-winning publications including a magazine, The Motivator; website featuring educational videos and research updates; S.E.A.R.C.H.™ program to assist the MS community with learning about different treatment choices; a mobile phone app, My MS Manager™; a resource database, My MS Resource Locator; equipment distribution ranging from grab bars to wheelchairs; cooling accessories for heat-sensitive individuals; educational events and activities; MRI funding and insurance advocacy; and more. For additional information, please visit http://www.mymsaa.org or call (800) 532-7667.

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