Multiple sclerosis (MS) is an autoimmune condition that causes inflammation and neurodegeneration in the central nervous system. MS is unpredictable, but common symptoms include numbness and tingling, fatigue, weakness, pain, mood changes, and cognitive changes. Nearly one million people in the U.S. live with MS.
The physical, mental, and cognitive effects of MS can greatly influence quality of life. Professional treatments are available to treat the condition, but there are lifestyle measures that can make living with MS easier.
Read on to learn coping strategies for living with MS.
Maintaining a Healthy Lifestyle With MS
Healthy lifestyle choices are important for everyone, but they can be especially important for people living with long-term conditions such as MS.
While they aren’t a substitute for treatment, lifestyle changes can make symptoms and relapses easier to manage.
These changes don’t need to be made all at once. Be realistic about what works for you. Small changes over time can have a big impact.
Prioritize Mental Health
Struggles with mood and mental health are common in people who have MS. Prioritizing mental health as seriously as physical health can help to preserve and even enhance quality of life for people living with MS.
Psychotherapy approaches can be very beneficial, including:
Medication may be recommended if a mental health disorder is present. Treating mental health conditions in people with MS is similar to treatment recommended for the general population, but interactions with MS medications need to be considered.
While it’s unclear if stress can worsen the condition, stress is commonly experienced by people with MS. More research is needed into the effects of stress on MS onset and symptoms, but stress management techniques can at least help a person feel better.
Relaxation techniques that may help include:
- Deep breathing
- Visualization/guided imagery
- Progressive muscle relaxation
- Tai chi
Identifying stressors, setting realistic goals and priorities, asking for help when needed, keeping physically and mentally active, and making time for fun can also help reduce stress levels.
Asking for help can be hard, especially if you are used to doing everything on your own, but seeking support is important.
Places and people to turn to for support include:
- Healthcare providers and mental health professionals
- Significant others
- Neighbors and community members
- Support groups (online or in-person)
- Hired services (such as someone to clean, shovel, or mow)
- MS organizations
- Resources for people with MS
When asking for help:
- Be open with your needs
- Be specific with your requests (i.e. “Would you be able to watch my kids for two hours on Sunday morning?” instead of, “Could you take care of the kids sometimes?”)
- Ask when you need something—don’t wait for someone to offer
- Explain to those who want to help that MS can be unpredictable and how that affects your needs
- Have support plans in place ahead of time that you can put into play when you need to
Where to Find Support
The National Multiple Sclerosis Society offers a resource guide and search tool that can help you connect with healthcare providers, financial assistance, emotional support, home care, and more.
Get Plenty of Rest
Many people with MS have trouble with sleep, which can affect daytime cognitive activity.
Talk to your healthcare provider about your sleep difficulties to help determine the cause (including the possibility of a sleep disorder) and what can be done about it.
Eat Healthy Foods
There is insufficient evidence to show that any special diet is effective at preventing MS or affecting its development. Some of these proposed special diets could even be harmful.
Instead, the same nutritious foods recommended for all adults are recommended for people with MS as well.
Some basic ways to help ensure you are getting proper nutrition include:
- Fill half your plate with fruits and vegetables
- Choose lean protein, such as fish or poultry
- Choose healthy fats, such as olive oil or grapeseed oil, and limit saturated fats
- Choose whole foods, such as whole grains
- Eat fiber-rich foods
- Drink plenty of water
- Read food labels
Be Careful With Supplements
Supplement use should only be done under the guidance of a healthcare provider, as some supplements may be harmful to people with MS. Particularly, avoid any supplements that claim to boost the immune system. While research is being done into a possible link between vitamin D deficiency and MS, speak with your healthcare provider about whether a vitamin D supplement is right for you before taking them.
Research has shown that exercise can have multiple benefits for people with MS, including:
- Improving overall health
- Reducing fatigue
- Improving bladder and bowel function
- Increasing strength, balance, and mobility
- Positively affecting mood and mental functioning
- Possibly reducing inflammation
Types of physical activities to try include:
- Aerobic activities (cardiorespiratory): Including walking, cycling, swimming
- Strength training (resistance training): Focuses on muscle strength and endurance
- Yoga: Combines breathing, relaxation, balancing, and stretching techniques
- Exergaming (exercise and video gaming): Combines video game platforms and body movement-tracking technology
Before starting a physical activity or exercise program, it’s important to talk to your healthcare provider to make sure it’s appropriate for you.
Exercising with MS comes with cautions to be aware of, including the potential for overheating, dehydration, exhaustion, and falls.
Overheating can cause minor symptoms such as numbness, tingling, and blurred vision, which do not have lasting effects, but may be unpleasant and limit the duration of the activity.
Ways to help avoid overheating include:
- Wear loose clothing
- Be in front of a fan
- Drink lots of cool fluids
- Use cooling garments, such as neck or head bandanas
People who have MS may find that because their symptoms limit the amount they can do, they prioritize self-care activities and daily chores over leisure or social activities. However, this can negatively impact their quality of life.
Incorporating participation in meaningful and enjoyable activities into the treatment plan for people with MS is important.
These goals can be as simple as:
- Going outside
- Spending time with friends and family
- Engaging in hobbies
- Taking a class
Building Confidence With MS
Acceptance is one way to build confidence with MS. This doesn’t mean “giving in” to the condition, but rather acknowledging that though MS is out of your control, you do control your reactions and decisions. Acceptance is an ongoing process that involves work and even grieving. But it can ultimately lead to improved life satisfaction.
Some other strategies to help boost confidence include:
- Write it out: Write down your feelings, thoughts, symptoms, and goals in a journal
- Do things that scare you: Facing a fear—whether it’s something practical or something fun—can help boost your confidence
- See your uniqueness: Focus on the things that make you “you,” including your character, personality, preferences, wishes, and everything else that makes you the unique person you are
More Lifestyle Tips for MS
Other helpful lifestyle tips for living with MS include:
- Stop smoking (or don’t start): Smoking may worsen MS, whereas stopping smoking may help slow the progression
- Get vaccinated: Vaccination can help avoid infections that could worsen symptoms or cause a flare-up. Some vaccines (those that contain live organisms) may not be recommended for people undergoing some disease-modifying therapies, so check with your healthcare provider before getting a vaccine.
Tips for Working With MS
In the United States, the Americans With Disability Act (ADA) gives specific requirements for what an employer must do in terms of accommodating the needs of people with MS and other disabilities. This includes guidelines for areas such as:
- The worksite
- Job restructuring
- Modifying roles/responsibilities
- Equipment and services
Helpful Work Resources for People With MS
The Job Accommodation Network offers a detailed list of suggestions for accommodations that can be made at work for people with MS. You can look for suggested accommodations by limitation or by work-related function.
The National Multiple Sclerosis Society provides an in-depth guide to finding employment, working with MS, and rights in the workplace.
What to Expect
MS is not one-size-fits-all. Just as the symptoms and the progression of the condition can vary, so does the way different people respond to a diagnosis of MS.
Some people feel scared, sad, angry, shocked, uncertain, and many other powerful emotions. Others can feel relieved to have an answer for the symptoms they have been experiencing. There is no right or wrong way to react to being diagnosed with MS.
If you are struggling, talk to your healthcare provider or a mental health professional. They can help you find the support you need.
Lifestyle changes are not a substitute for MS treatment, but they can improve the lives of people with MS. Measures such as prioritizing mental health, managing stress, eating nutritious foods, exercising, and finding support can benefit people with MS. You can also discuss arrangements with your employer for how best to continue your work and make any necessary workplace adjustments.
A Word From Verywell
Alongside treatment, there are many things you can do to make living with MS easier and more enjoyable. Prioritizing your mental health is just as important as your physical health. Talk to your healthcare provider about activities and lifestyle changes that are appropriate for you to try.
Frequently Asked Questions
Can lifestyle changes help alleviate MS symptoms?
While not a substitute for treatment, people with MS may find lifestyle changes such as eating a nutritious diet, managing stress, and getting enough sleep can help with their symptoms.
Can you live a comfortable life with MS?
MS symptoms, severity, progression, and prognosis vary greatly. It’s impossible to predict exactly how MS will affect you over time. Regardless of how it manifests, some treatments and measures can make life more comfortable for people living with MS.
How does MS progress with age?
The average life expectancy for people with MS has increased over time, likely due to improved treatment, health care, and lifestyle changes. Because of the possibility of complications or other medical conditions, the average life expectancy for people with MS is believed to be about seven years less than the general population, but many of these complications are preventable or manageable.