Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a disease that causes demyelination (disruption of the myelin that insulates and protects nerve cells) of spinal nerve and brain cells.
Although the exact case is unknown, it’s considered to be an autoimmune disease.
Risk factors for the disease include being between 15-60 years of age; women have about two to three times the risk for multiple sclerosis than men.
Multiple sclerosis symptoms and signs depend on where the nerves are demyelinated and may include:
- Visual changes including double vision or loss of vision
- Tingling or weakness (weakness may range from mild to severe)
- Vertigo or dizziness
- Erectile dysfunction (ED, impotence)
- Pregnancy problems
- Incontinence (or conversely, urinary retention)
- Muscle spasticity
- Incoordination of muscles
- Painful involuntary muscle contractions
- Slurred speech
There are four types of MS:
- Relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis (RRMS),
- Secondary-progressive multiple sclerosis (SPMS), the most common type
- Primary-progressive multiple sclerosis (SPMS)
- Progressive-relapsing multiple sclerosis (PRMS)
There is no one test to diagnose MS. Doctors and other health care professionals diagnose the disease by a patient’s history, physical exam, and tests such as MRI, lumbar puncture, and evoked potential testing (speed of nerve impulses); other tests may be done to rule out other diseases that may cause similar symptoms.
Numbness or tingling in the hands, arms, and legs is often the earliest symptom of multiple sclerosis (MS), but symptoms affecting the hands can also include pain, muscle weakness, tremors, and problems with hand-eye coordination.
All of these symptoms are caused by a disruption in communication between the central nervous system (the brain and spinal cord) and the sensory nerves in the hands.
When your hands are affected, everyday tasks — such as writing, typing, getting dressed, and grasping or picking up objects — become more difficult.
Is there anything that can help? Yes. In a word, exercise.
While hand exercises likely won’t relieve numbness, they can help you maintain or improve your hand function so you’re better able to perform activities that require hand strength and fine motor skills.
The following hand exercises for MS can improve your ability to grip and pinch with your hands. Do the exercises slowly, and pay attention to how you feel. As your range of motion and strength improve, add resistance, as described below.
1. Finger Flexion and Extension
Bend the fingers of one hand toward the palm to make a fist. Then straighten your fingers and stretch out your hand; repeat with the other hand. Gradually work up to 10 to 15 repetitions of the exercise at a time.
Start with one set a day, then progress to two sets in a row, or do one set twice a day. If one hand is affected more than the other, you might do two sets on that hand and only one set on the stronger hand.
To focus more on strength, hold a rolled-up washcloth, sponge, Nerf ball, or ball of therapeutic putty (available from an occupational therapist) in your hand as you squeeze and release. These objects will provide some resistance. If you want to increase your grip strength, use a tennis ball or a small hand therapy exercise ball.
2. Finger Abduction and Adduction
Straighten the thumb and fingers of one hand. Spread the fingers apart and then squeeze them together; repeat with the other hand. Perform three to five repetitions to start; progress to 10 to 15 reps once, and then twice, a day. To add resistance, place a rubber band around your fingers when they’re in the closed position (it should fit snugly), and then spread them apart, pressing against the band. You can also use a small rubber band on two or three fingers at a time.
3. Finger Pinch
Roll a washcloth or putty into a tube shape. Using your thumb and index finger, pinch along the tube from one end to the other; repeat with your other hand. To strengthen your palm, use your thumb, index finger, and third finger to pinch a washcloth or putty or Nerf ball; repeat with the other hand. Repeat either exercise three to five times with each hand, working up to 10 to 15 reps.
4. Movement Therapy, or ‘Piano Hands’
Sit up tall in a chair, facing a table or desk. Place your hands, palms down, on the edge of the table (your forearms should be hanging off). Lift your fingers up and down, one at a time, as if you were playing the piano. Then move them up and down the imaginary keyboard. You might even do this to real music — play for 20 to 30 seconds of a tune to start.
5. Massage and Dexterity Exercises
Massage therapy can help with burning or prickling feelings or numbness in the hands. You can also try some hand physical therapy or hand occupational therapy, such as playing cards or video games, doing crafts that require dexterity, or try typing at your computer keyboard or organizing your desk or kitchen drawers. Include some stretching in your routine as well.
These exercises and activities won’t make hand pain and numbness go away, “but stretching helps get more blood flowing to your hands and can help you increase movement and manage tightness.”