Spasticity is an involuntary (and constant) contraction of muscles and in Multiple Sclerosis (MS) this usually occurs in the legs. Though many people with MS can say they suffer from spasticity the severity can range from a minor feeling of tightness to painful spasms to an inability to move the legs well enough to walk properly. Many people commonly describe spasticity in the legs as a feeling of being stiff or rigid causing them to feel like they are trying to walk on wooden stilts. When occurring in the legs spasticity can also lead to lower back pain but though spasticity usually occurs in the legs it also occurs in the arms.
According to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, if all degrees (levels of severity) of spasticity are taken into consideration then it is estimated that spasticity affects about 80% of people with MS making spasticity a very common MS symptom.
Many different treatment options exist for spasticity ranging from simple oral prescriptions such as Baclofen, Zanaflex, Gabapentin, Valium or Dantrium, to injections (Botox), to having a device surgically implanted under the skin such as a Baclofen pump which administers a set amount of the medication directly into the spine. The problem with a lot of the oral medications is that they can cause drowsiness which is counterproductive to many of those dealing with fatigue. Many people find that simple daily stretches can greatly help reduce spasticity so seeing a physical therapist to learn the best stretches for spasticity in particular is a great idea. Some people have also said that certain strains of cannabis (medical marijuana) help relieve their spasticity but I have yet to find any form of cannabis that helps my spasticity. When spasticity is left untreated it can lead to contractures (frozen joints) so finding what works for you is really important. I personally did not seem to benefit much from any of the oral medications like Baclofen so stretching is what I have found to be most helpful but that is just me, we are all different. My spasticity is nowhere near severe enough for heavier treatments like Botox so something like that would probably just turn my legs into noodles rendering me unable to walk.
It’s important to realize that because many people deal with muscle weakness in the legs a certain degree of spasticity can actually be beneficial as it can help keep you upright.
Now as I said before, spasticity can affect any limb and people who experience spasticity in their arms often have trouble performing simple tasks such as getting dressed; in cases like this I strongly recommend seeing an occupational therapist who can teach you new ways to perform a task so that that task is not only possible again but it will be much easier so that you do not fatigue yourself trying to perform the task.
An occupational therapist can also teach you how to function throughout the day without doing things that can trigger spasticity (or worsen it) such as making quick movements or positioning your body in certain ways. When I am trying to perform a task that I can no longer do with ease I may become really frustrated and that feeling of frustration (stress) greatly triggers my spasticity. An occupational therapist can show you how to perform a task in a way that is less frustrating which helps you avoid stress which is essentially poison to most people with MS. I found occupational therapy to be very helpful.
Spasticity is caused by a lesion in the spinal cord which is why people with many different spinal cord injuries also experience spasticity. People with spasticity may also suffer from clonus (rapidly repeating muscle spasms) or hyperreflexia (over exaggerated/sensitive reflexes) which I will talk about in a future article.