Multiple Sclerosis and Mobility Aids

If you have multiple sclerosis (MS), you may begin to develop problems with walking and mobility. When that happens, your best strategy is to think in terms of maximizing your mobility, even if your walking isn't as reliable as it used to be.

Mobility aids help you to conserve energy and time so that you can do something more easily and efficiently. Your physical therapist can help you pick the tools that will get you where you want to go.

MS is highly variable and unpredictable. You may need a mobility aid sometimes and not others. Yes, MS is generally a progressive disease, but it often travels in a roundabout path. So you may need to use a mobility aid during a severe exacerbation, but you may be fine without one after the exacerbation has subsided.

The rehabilitation specialists can help you figure out what tools you need to remain mobile during the attack while also giving you an exercise regimen to get you back on your feet ASAP.

MS mobility aids: Canes and crutches

A cane's job is to support your weaker side, so the best strategy is to use it on your stronger side. Although the style is pretty much up to you, ask your physical therapist how tall it needs to be in order to give you adequate support.

People generally want a cane that looks as little like a cane as possible. So, they go for the designer look or a collapsible cane that can remain out of sight until needed. Just keep in mind that a cane won't be useful unless it does what you need it to do.

So make sure that the cane is sturdy enough to support you, that the handle is comfortable to hold and gives you enough surface to grip firmly, and that the tip doesn't slip easily. If you need more support than a regular cane can provide, your physical therapist can show you some other options.

Forearm crutches (also called Lofstrand or Canadian crutches) are good if you need more support than a cane can offer. They have a cuff that goes around your lower arm and a handle perpendicular to the crutch that helps support your weight. Forearm crutches don't require as much upper arm strength as regular crutches or canes, so they help conserve valuable energy.

MS mobility aids: Walkers

A walker, which moves in front of you instead of to the side of you, provides more stability and requires less energy than crutches or canes. Fortunately, the walker options have grown far beyond the old aluminum walker that makes a lot of noise. Depending on your needs, you have the option of many brightly colored styles, complete with four wheels, handbrakes, and a convenient seat for resting when you get tired.

MS mobility aids: Motorized scooters

Believe it or not, motorized scooters are designed primarily for people who can walk! Scooter-lovers simply want a way to conserve energy over long distances — sightseeing trips, visits to zoos and museums, long "walks" in the country, and exhausting trips to the grocery store or mall.

After you get where you want to go, you can park your scooter and walk, with or without a cane for support. In other words, a scooter is like a golf cart for everyday use.

Motorized scooters come in three-wheeled and four-wheeled styles, with a wide variety of options in terms of size, weight, battery life, type of tire, and color. Each style has its pluses and minuses, so it's important to think carefully about how you're going to use it.

For example, a lightweight scooter that goes easily in and out of the trunk of your car will have less battery power than a heavier machine with bigger batteries. A scooter with heavy-duty tires is ideal for outside use but unnecessary for inside your home or office. And finally, a three-wheeled scooter may look more attractive to you, but they offer less stability on turns and bumps than those with four wheels.

Here's something else to keep in mind: Even though you may worry that using one will make you look "disabled," people generally find that driving a scooter helps them feel and look stronger, more stable, and more in control. When you're confidently driving around in your spunky scooter, your loved ones don't have to worry about you falling or being able to keep up. In fact, they'll be running to keep up with you.

MS mobility aids: Wheelchairs

Before you panic at the mere thought of using a wheelchair, just remember that sitting in one doesn't mean that your butt gets glued there. You can use a wheelchair when and if you need it, without worrying that sitting down from time to time will cause your legs to get weaker or your walking to get worse. And you can use a wheelchair for short distances or long. Lots of people opt to keep a folding chair in the trunk of the car in case they "run out of gas" or know they're going to be doing something strenuous.

Wheelchairs come in a variety of motorized and non-motorized styles, depending on your needs and preferences. Motorized wheelchairs offer more support and positioning options (sort of like the seat of your car) than manual wheelchairs or scooters but are generally heavier and less portable than the other options.

Although most people with MS never need to use a wheelchair on a full-time basis, it's good to know that there are safe, comfortable chairs that allow people to work full-time, take care of their kids, travel around the world, play sports, and even dance if they want to.

Even though most insurance policies do cover the cost of a wheelchair or scooter, they generally don't cover both. So, you need to think about which type of mobility aid best meets your needs. If you decide that you need more than one type, you'll have to pay for the additional ones on your own.

MS mobility aids: Medication

In 2010, the FDA approved a medication called Ampyra (dalfampridine) to improve walking in people with MS. Although this medication increases walking speed for many people, it doesn't work for everyone. And those individuals who take it still need to address all the factors that may be contributing to their walking problems. The good news is that Ampyra is approved for anyone who is able to walk, and it can be used with any disease-modifying medication.

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