If you have multiple sclerosis (MS), the more tools you have in your bag to tackle the symptoms and side effects of the disease, the better. In addition to taking your medications and seeing your doctor regularly, stretching is a useful strategy for MS management. If you’re thinking stretching is too easy to make a real difference, think again: By improving your flexibility, stretching counteracts the reduced range of motion and muscle spasms caused by MS. This flexibility is also essential for strengthening weakened muscles, improving your balance and coordination, and releasing physical and mental stress, according to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.
“People with MS often have more trouble moving as they age and their disease progresses, and causing them to be less active,” says Kathy Zackowski, Ph.D., a former occupational therapist at Johns Hopkins MS Center in Baltimore and current senior director of patient management and care and rehabilitation research at the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. Stretching counteracts this decline in mobility, which means you can continue living an active life.
In basic terms, stretching means you extend a muscle and hold it there (often for 20 to 40 seconds). Most muscles benefit from stretching, Zackowski says, although some get stiffer than others. In fact, many people with MS experience a symptom called spasticity—basically, excessive muscle tightness that’s not voluntary. The six stretches here, developed specifically for MS patients, can help improve symptoms like spasticity. Bonus? They just feel good!
Before you dive in, consider talking with a physical therapist or occupational therapist first, says Zackowski. These folks are trained in teaching stretching techniques in ways that won’t lead to accidental injuries. That said, these basic moves are a great place to start. Just make sure not to push yourself too far, especially if you’re feeling any pain.
The Stretch: Cervical Rotation
How to: When it comes to head and neck stretches, you want to be extra gentle to avoid injury, says Zackowski. Here, you’re aiming for a side-to-side motion, like you’re shaking your head. Turn your head to the left, almost like you’re looking over your shoulder, and then slowly turn to the other side. Repeat this motion two to three times. “Go really slowly and not to the point of pain,” she says.
The payoff: “This stretch helps you get that range of motion you need in real life,” says Zackowski. “For example, when you’re driving, it’s important that you’re able to do these movements.”
The Stretch: Knee to Chest
How to: This stretch targets several areas at once that are prone to tightness for people with MS, including your back. It’s a good one to do first thing when you wake up (even from your bed). “When you’re sleeping, you’re fully extended—and that’s when your back might hurt,” Zackwowski says. “When you hug your knees to your chest, it helps bend everything that was extended for so long.” You can bring both knees up at once or alternate one leg at a time—whatever feels better to you. It may even feel good to roll slightly from side to side while holding this stretch.
The payoff: “Some people feel more stable when they stand up, and their balance isn’t quite as off after they do this stretch,” she says.
The Stretch: Bridge
How to: The classic bridge pose incorporates the trunk and legs. Lying on your back with your knees bent, and your arms flat at your sides, lift your hips upward slowly, then lower them. Repeat 2-3 times. “As you lift your hips, go as far as what’s comfortable, and look straight up at the ceiling so you’re not putting undue strain on your neck,” Zackowski says.
The payoff: “The benefit of this stretch is it’s incorporating your glutes and your abdominals,” she says. “Your butt and stomach work together to lift your body, and that warms your hips up for movement.”
The Stretch: Shoulder Flexion
How to: “Sitting on the edge of your bed, if you’re stable, reach your arms up to the ceiling and hold them there for 20 to 40 seconds,” Zackowski says. If that feels too easy, you can also reach with one arm at a time. Either way, always stretch both side of your body. “Even if one side feels like your good side, stretching both sides equally reminds you of what a movement feels like on a side that’s less effected, while giving you a measure of how far off you are on the more effected side,” she notes.
The payoff: Spasms and tension are common in the shoulder area (even if you don’t have MS!). These moves can lessen the pain.
The Stretch: Wrist Flexion and Extension
How to: This is one of the most helpful stretches if you want to improve hand function. Known as an “active assist stretch,” use your opposite hand or thumb to apply gentle pressure to pull your hand into the stretch position. “Your opposite hand gives you a little bit of extra pressure to really encourage the stretch,” says Zackwoski. Use light pressure and be gentle; then pull the hand in the opposite direction for a flexion stretch.
The payoff: The muscles that allow you to flex your fingers are actually in your forearm. By stretching your wrist, you activate those muscles for better control of your fingers.
The Stretch: Spinal Twist
How to: Here’s another one you can do in bed if you want, or on the floor for a deeper stretch since it’s a firmer surface, says Zackowski. Start prone on your back. Bend knees slightly and place feet flat on the floor. If you’re starting with your right side, put your left hand on your bent right knee and slowly lower your knee to the left side of your body. “Try to lie flat on your back and extend your right arm out like a wing so your hips twist,” she says. Repeat on opposite side.
The payoff: “This move helps you not lose mobility in your spine,” says Zackwoski.
It can take a while to get into the habit of stretching for MS, but once you do, you’ll likely see a real difference over time. A good way to establish a stretching routine is to make it the first thing you do when you wake up (did you notice how a lot of these stretches can be done from the comfort of your bed?). “I think everybody should be stretching every morning, at least for a minute or two,” says Zackwoski. “You’ll see an improvement.”