10 Ways an OT Can Help With MS Independence

by Lara DeSanto Health Writer

As the name suggests, an occupational therapist (OT) can help make doing your job easier, but they do a heck of a lot more. An OT can play a major role on your healthcare team when you have multiple sclerosis (MS). MS symptoms—from thinking problems to fatigue—can create obstacles in daily life. That’s where your OT comes in, says Gabe Byars, a licensed OT at Salt Lake Community College and the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, who specializes in working with people with MS. Here are 10 reasons to consider seeing an OT if you have MS.

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Think of Your OT as Your MS Consultant

Not sure where to start when it comes to tackling problems related to your MS symptoms? “A really good OT will be not an instructor but a consultant,” Byars explains. “They’ll work side by side with you to figure out how to make things easier for you.” That can include troubleshooting tasks that have become more complicated by your MS because of tremors or muscle weakness. These include getting dressed, taking a shower, or, more broadly, teaching you to conserve your energy to last throughout the day.

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Get Help Building Helpful Habits

One big thing your OT can help you with is building habits that improve life with MS—which is actually really tricky, says Byars, since research shows forming a new habit can take months. Maybe that new habit you want to form is learning to take regular breaks to help you better conserve your energy throughout the day; your OT can help you track this behavior and work with you through the process, Byars says.

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Learn to Prioritize, Plan, and Pace Yourself Better

Your OT isn’t there to tell you what to do—their goal is to help you do the things you feel are important in your life, Byars explains. To that end, they can help you prioritize—and then execute those goals. “Things at the top of your list are where you invest your energy and time,” Byars says. Your OT may help you figure out which parts of the day you typically have the most energy, and help you make a plan to pursue those top-tier goals during those times. With MS, it’s all about pacing, Byars says.

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Help Manage Your MS-Related Fatigue

More than 75% of people with MS experience fatigue, according to the Cleveland Clinic. There’s primary fatigue (the direct result of MS), and also secondary fatigue, which comes from poor sleep, medication side effects, and chronic stress, says Rebecca Cunningham, OTD, OTR/L, assistant professor of clinical OT at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.

While the primary fatigue won’t likely disappear, Cunningham says your OT will work with you to try to reduce those secondary factors. “Then we can use activity pacing, energy conservation, and energy optimization strategies to work around and with the primary fatigue,” she says.

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Practice Cognitive Skills and Learn to Adapt to Changes

Cognitive problems are another common MS symptom. “We often see processing speed decreases, and advanced reasoning, planning, and problem-solving may take longer,” Byars explains. MS can affect your memory later in the disease, too; and while you may be tempted to do memory games and brain puzzles to help remedy this, Byars says this isn’t the best approach. “If you’re having trouble balancing a checkbook, Sudoku isn’t going to cut it. Data on cognitive rehabilitation show if you are working on a challenging task and do it in a supportive way, you will improve on that task.”

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Troubleshoot Sleep Problems

OTs can also help you manage your sleep problems with MS. For example, things like chronic pain and bladder issues with MS can lead to problems with getting quality sleep, says Cunningham. Once you and your OT pinpoint the culprits, they can help you address each one, improving your sleep routine and your overall rest quality. If bladder issues are the problem, your OT can offer suggestions to help—for example, they may suggest you avoid certain bladder irritants (like caffeine and chocolate) along with cutting off fluids two to three hours before bedtime, Cunningham says.

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Learn MS ‘Life Hacks’

If you’re finding certain activities have become more difficult because of your MS symptoms, your OT may be able to recommend ways to modify that activity to make it doable—and that may involve special products, equipment, or other clever changes, Byars says. For example, if you love to cook, using traditional knives to chop up ingredients can be tricky if you’re battling a symptom like numbness or tremors in your hands. Byars recommends the Verti-Grip knife as a cooking to give you more control—its vertical, design and rocking-motion blade allows for easier one-handed use and requires less force.

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Make Time for Exercises

Your OT may give you exercises to improve balance, gait, strength, or coordination. Or they might simply help you find ways to fit the routine into your busy schedule or at times when you have the most energy.

“My job is to make sure the person is following through with the home exercise program,” says Cunningham. “It’s one thing to do your exercises with a therapist, but it’s quite a different story when you go home and have to figure out how to make your exercises happen throughout the week. There’s a lot of problem-solving that can be required.”

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Learn to Make Diet Changes

While there’s no specific researched-backed diet for MS, you may find that making certain diet changes helps your symptoms.

“My job is not to tell somebody how to eat,” Cunningham says, “But if I have client who wants to follow a specific diet, I can help them problem-solve how to make that happen.” Cunningham commonly works with clients to reduce salt intake (some studies suggest too much salt can worsen MS, although others find no connection), get enough fiber (this helps bowel-related symptoms!), and understand how food choices and meal timing can impact fatigue.

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Focus on Self-Care and Stress Relief

Managing a chronic condition is inherently stressful, thanks to all the uncertainties and life changes it brings. Cunningham says a big part of her role is helping people recognize their personal stress triggers. “Part of my process is helping them engage in that self-analysis so we can intervene early on [when stress arises],” she says. And stress itself takes up a huge amount of energy and focus, Byars says. “[OTs can help with] strategies to handle stress in a productive way and help you practice self-care and stress relief activities—establishing helpful coping strategies that work for you.”

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Better Together

It’s tough for anyone to juggle a career, a family, and a social life. Add MS to the mix, and things get much more challenging. Thankfully, you don’t have to go it alone—building a multidisciplinary healthcare team can help relieve some of the burden you’re carrying, and an OT is a key player on that team who can help you solve problems and implement new strategies into your life to make life easier. Ask your regular MS doctor if they can refer you to an OT they recommend.

Lara DeSanto
Meet Our Writer
Lara DeSanto

Lara is a former digital editor for HealthCentral, covering Sexual Health, Digestive Health, Head and Neck Cancer, and Gynecologic Cancers. She continues to contribute to HealthCentral while she works towards her masters in marriage and family therapy and art therapy. In a past life, she worked as the patient education editor at the American College of OB-GYNs and as a news writer/editor at WTOP.com.