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Should You Go to Occupational Therapy for MS?

By Lisa M. Basile
Reviewed by Dana Cooper, M.D.
March 22, 2024

Living with multiple sclerosis (MS) can make things tough, so keeping a well-stocked toolkit of strategies for making life more manageable and meaningful is key. Occupational therapy can help teach you many of these useful strategies.

All the regular activities or responsibilities you take part in—things like taking your medication on time, getting dressed, and doing household chores—are called occupations, according to the American Occupational Therapy Association. Occupational therapy is a type of therapy or rehabilitation that helps people maximize participation in their own lives, explains Ryan Patterson, an occupational therapist (OT) at Brooks Rehabilitation Institute of Higher Learning in Orlando, Florida.

“Occupational therapists provide a unique service and perspective to help patients and clients identify goals, barriers to participation, and ways to increase independence,” he says.

It doesn’t matter how mild or progressed your MS may be—occupational therapy may be useful at any time or during any stage of the disease, according to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. If you’d like help making adjustments after diagnosis or implementing big changes to your everyday life, an occupational therapist can step in to help.

But what does an OT do exactly, and what can you expect? We’ve enlisted the experts to help break it all down.

What Happens in Occupational Therapy for MS?

An occupational therapist will typically first ask you about your personal goals when you meet them. According to Patterson, people with MS might commonly turn to an OT to:

Once you’ve explained what your goals are, the OT will create customized strategies to help you participate fully in your life and achieve those goals. Your OT will also evaluate the progress to see whether their plans are meeting your needs.

Michelle Mioduszewski, occupational therapist and owner of Niagara Therapy, in Erie, Pennsylvania, says that occupational therapists can also help in many different environments.

For example, she explains, an occupational therapist for MS in a hospital or a rehab center might help you focus on general tasks, like dressing or bathing yourself. An OT who comes to your home can help customize their assistance to your home environment, which might mean helping you find mobility aids for your space. And an OT in an office or a clinic can help with several types of outpatient support.

How Can People with MS Benefit from Occupational Therapy?

Research backs up the effectiveness of occupational therapy for MS. According to a 2021 review, occupational therapy may help improve fatigue, hand dexterity, cognition, and quality of life in people with MS.

Therry Neilsen-Steinhardt, an MS patient advocate who has lived with the disease since 1978, says working with an OT has helped her greatly. Neilsen-Steinhardt worked with an OT in a hospital setting. At the time, she was dealing with MS-related cognitive troubles that affected her focus, concentration, and functional memory, among other issues. Because of this, she had trouble managing her medication intake properly.

“[The OT and I] talked over how I took my meds and how I kept track of my prescriptions and supplements. She showed me ways to use my remaining brain cells [to organize and manage my medications] with the help of props, bright colors, and laminated printouts. Years later, I still rely on her ideas about how to manage my 14 supplements and six prescriptions. From my laminated prescription list to my color-coded prescription cases, I am in her debt,” Neilsen-Steinhardt says.

Occupational vs. Physical Therapy

Although occupational therapy might sound like physical therapy in some ways, they’re different. “They share many of the same base principles. To the untrained eye, they may look very similar … but the major difference [comes down to] the goal of the treatment,” Patterson says.

Physical therapy is all about the body. Physical therapists help people reduce pain and improve strength, balance, and range of motion, Patterson explains.

“OT incorporates a more holistic approach to treating individuals,” Patterson says. An OT does this by considering the occupations that matter to you and how your social support, physical capability, and personal beliefs or values play into them.

If a valued hobby has become increasingly difficult to keep up with, an occupational therapist can help you find ways to build it back into your life. Or, if you’ve lost some mobility, an OT can help you find new ways to gain independence again—so that you can cook or clean, for example. “We use participation in occupations as a way to improve areas of dysfunction,” Patterson adds.

How to Make the Most of Occupational Therapy for MS

It’s important to know what you want to get out of occupational therapy and to fully commit to it.

“The most critical recommendation I would offer to somebody as they were seeking occupational therapy is to come prepared with concerns that you have in day-to-day life,” Mioduszewski says. “The more you bring to the table that is important to do, the better the therapist can assist you in working on strategies to continue or adapt the important values of occupation in your life.” That is to say, having a clear idea of what matters to you will help the therapist help you as best they can.

Here are some questions you may want to ask yourself:

  • What symptoms am I struggling with?
  • Is MS interfering with my home, work, or social life? In what ways?
  • Do I need help with activities like eating, dressing, bathing, or taking care of myself?
  • Do I need help getting back to fun or relaxing activities?
  • Do I have difficulty moving around my home, school, or workplace?
  • What things do I value and want to remain independent for?

Being an active player is the best way to get the most out of your occupational therapy for MS, and it's important to acknowledge that change comes from you, Patterson emphasizes. “Your OT is there to help develop a framework to follow for improving skills and learning or relearning activities, but implementing them is up to you,” he says. To see the most change, participate in your therapy and carry what you learn into your day-to-day life. This can help you reach your goals.

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