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An Occupational Therapist’s Favorite Grip Strength Exercises for MS

By Erica Patino
Reviewed by Dana Cooper, M.D.
December 30, 2022

People with multiple sclerosis (MS) may experience symptoms like muscle weakness, numbness, and tingling. These can cause problems throughout the body, including in the hands, which can lead to trouble with tasks like using a fork or knife, writing, and buttoning shirts, according to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society (NMSS).

Hand challenges with MS primarily involve a loss of manual dexterity, says Barbara Giesser, M.D., a board-certified neurologist and MS specialist at Pacific Neuroscience Institute at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California. “Weakness, loss of sensation, incoordination, and spasticity are all things that could impair our ability to use our hands,” she says. “If any of these were present during an acute attack of MS, we would give a short course of steroids. For more chronic problems, you would want to mostly use rehabilitative modalities.”

If grip strength is an issue for you, your neurologist or MS specialist can refer you to an occupational therapist (OT), who can teach you exercises to strengthen your grip and improve hand dexterity. In addition to making writing, eating, and dressing easier, performing MS grip strength exercises may help you with tasks such as gripping a chair to get up from it, or holding on to a cane or walker.

Your OT can also teach you how to use adaptive equipment, such as button hooks for buttoning, or adaptive utensils for cutting food. Over time, grip strength exercises for MS may improve hand strength enough that you may not need to use adaptive equipment anymore, says Kerri Newman-Darrow, an occupational therapist and certified hand therapist at City PT in Fredericksburg, Virginia.

Grip exercises don’t need to be complex, and as you practice, they can increase your hand strength. Here are a few types of exercises that experts recommend.

Putty Exercises

“A person who is looking to strengthen their grip and pinch ability to increase their independence with feeding and buttoning would really benefit from putty exercises,” Newman-Darrow says. These are exercises that involve the use of special therapeutic putty, which may be available in different levels of resistance.

Newman-Darrow says the following three putty exercises might be helpful:

  1. Composite-grip strengthening exercise: Squeeze a ball of putty while bending all your knuckles.
  2. Hook-fist strengthening exercise: Bend just your tip knuckles (the ones closest to the tips of the fingers) while keeping your bottom knuckles straight. Squeeze the putty under your tip knuckles to help strengthen the smaller muscles of your hand.
  3. Pinch strengthening exercise: Using just one hand, make a small ball out of the putty. Then, work the ball to the tips of your fingers. Pinch the putty into a flat disc between your thumb and the tips of your index and middle fingers. “This helps with coordination and functional strength,” Newman-Darrow says.

Exercises That Don’t Require Equipment

In addition, the NMSS suggests a few MS grip strength exercises you can do without putty. For example:

  1. Place your hand flat on a table, spread your fingers apart, and then bring them together again.
  2. With your hand on the table and palm facing up, flex your thumb up and down away from your palm.

Games and Activities

The NMSS also suggests functional activities—like playing cards or board games, or doing crafts—to improve your finger coordination. Doing activities that require you to use your grip strength daily is a good way to maintain and build strength in your hands.

Build Other Strength

Strengthening other muscles in your body can help your hands, as well. “It's important to include the wrist and shoulder, as well as core, into your strengthening program,” Newman-Darrow says. “This will also increase your grip strength, albeit indirectly.” Ask your OT for suggestions for other strength-building exercises to incorporate into your routine.

Remember: These tips may be helpful to some, but they may not be right for everyone. Before beginning these or any other exercise, consult an OT or a physical therapist who has experience with MS for their personalized recommendations based on your goals.

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