What Is a Mobility Assistive Device in Multiple Sclerosis?

A Bridge to Your Independence, Albeit a Difficult One to Cross

Young couple in wheelchair strolling in the park
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Mobility restrictions limit people with MS from participating in activities that encompass all areas of life, like family gatherings, work experiences, and social engagements.

But a mobility assistive device can promote independence and help a person conserve energy, essentially giving back to a person the quality of life he or she deserves.

Examples of mobility assistive devices in MS include:

  • Cane
  • Ankle-foot orthoses or braces
  • Walkers
  • Rollators or rolling walkers
  • Manual wheelchairs
  • Power-assisted wheelchairs
  • Motorized scooter
  • Power wheelchairs

Will I Need a Mobility Assistive Device?

It's very hard to say, as there are a number of factors, most unpredictable, that determine whether or not a person with MS will need a mobility assistive device. Some of these factors include the type of MS a person has, and the natural activity level of a person—someone who exercises and remains active may delay their need to use a wheelchair, for example.

That being said, there is some research out there to better answer this question. One study reported that approximately 80 percent of people with MS will experience walking problems within 10 to 15 years after the start of their MS. Another study found that after 30 years of disease, approximately half of people with MS reported a need for a cane or reported a worse degree of disability.

It is important to note, though, that these are simply statistics and do not predict any individual person's likelihood of needing a mobility assistive device. In other words, everyone's MS is different. Your neurologist will be able to better predict your unique MS course—and even then, it's still difficult to know.

Reasons for Having a Mobility Assistive Device

One misconception about mobility assistive devices in MS is that they are primarily used for people who physically cannot walk—in other words, people who have a loss of motor function. But the truth is that people with MS use these devices to manage a number of MS-related symptoms that end up interfering with their ability to walk. These symptoms include:

  • balance problems (for example, dizziness or lack of coordination)
  • sensory disturbances (for example, numbness in their legs and/or feet)
  • muscle weakness (for example, foot drop)
  • muscle tightness or spasticity
  • pain
  • vision difficulties
  • depression

One scenario would be a person with MS fatigue who experiences debilitating exhaustion after doing weekly grocery shopping. In this instance, she may use a motorized wheelchair to get to and from her car and to navigate through the large store, but once home, she is able to walk around well without her wheelchair. So, in this instance, her mobility device is used as a means of conserving energy.

This is a reasonable and smart coping strategy. Why waste your precious energy on a weekly chore? Instead, reserve your energy for something you enjoy, like playing with your children or grandchildren, planting flowers, or going out for dinner with friends.

Mobility Assistive Devices May Stir Emotions

The arrival of a mobility device into your life was or will likely be an emotionally conflicting time. On the one hand, you may look at the device as a symbol of the loss your MS has undeservingly laid upon you, and this can lead to feelings of anger, sadness, denial, and fear for the future. On the other hand, your device may give you hope and true freedom. It can provide independence, allowing you to safely and more easily and comfortably embrace life.

In the end, if you experience significant or overwhelming sadness over having to use a mobility assistive device, please be sure to talk with your MS doctor, nurse, or a therapist.

They can help you navigate through this life-altering process and work with you to move forward confidently and at our own pace.

A Word From Verywell

It is important to note that mobility assistive devices are just one way to cope with walking problems. Other strategies are generally needed to optimize your independence and quality of life like:

  • rehabilitation therapy for exercises tailored to your MS needs
  • medications to manage depression, fatigue, and muscle tightness
  • adjustments made to your home and/or workplace (an occupational therapist can help with this)

Lastly, if you need a mobility device, be sure you work as a team with your neurologist and physical or occupational therapist. This way you obtain the right device—one that is safe, comfortable, and easy for you to use.

Sources:

Kister I. Natural history of multiple sclerosis symptoms. Int J MS Care. 2013 Fall;15(3):146-58.

National MS Society. Staying Mobile.

Souza A et al. Multiple sclerosis and mobility-related assistive technology: systematic review of literature. J Rehabil Res Dev. 2010;47(3):213-23.

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