Multiple sclerosis (MS) can affect a person’s vision, balance, muscle strength, and coordination. Some assistive devices, such as wheelchairs, canes, and motorized scooters, can help improve mobility and reduce the risk of falls.
Other assistive technology, such as voice command assistive devices and robotic arm devices, can help people with MS live more independently.
This article looks at types of mobility devices, aids for everyday tasks, and assistive technology products available for MS. It also discusses factors to consider when buying assistive devices, where to get them, and how to cover the cost.
Multiple sclerosis (MS) can affect a person’s muscle strength, balance, and coordination. It can also cause dizziness, painful spasms, and fatigue. These and other symptoms of MS increase a person’s risk of falling.
Increasing a person’s ability to be active safely may help reduce their risk and fear of falls.
The following sections discuss some mobility devices that people might consider using.
Various types of braces, or orthoses, are available to help improve mobility in people with MS.
According to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, physical therapists and orthotists most commonly suggest the use of ankle foot orthosis (AFO) braces for people with MS. An AFO brace supports the foot and ankle and prevents a condition called foot drop.
Foot drop occurs due to weakness or paralysis in the muscles that lift the front of the foot when a person takes a step. The brace can help prevent tripping and falling by preventing the front of the foot from catching on the ground or low obstacles.
Canes can help improve mobility in people with minor balance and stability issues.
A cane may be a single-point device, with one point that touches the ground, or a quad-point device, with four points touching the ground. A cane with four points can provide greater stability.
A person should hold the cane in the hand opposite the side that needs support. For proper support, the cane should reach the crease of a person’s wrist when their arm is straight.
A physical therapist can help a person learn to use a cane safely and effectively to increase stability and mobility.
Crutches help take pressure off a person’s legs while they are walking and provide stability and support.
A person may use underarm crutches, which people typically use for short periods, or forearm crutches, which are usually better suited for long-term use.
A walker removes some of the weight from a person’s legs as they walk and helps them use their arms to support some of their body weight.
A walker has four rubber-tipped legs that meet the ground. It provides greater stability and support than canes or crutches.
Wheelchairs and scooters
Several wheelchair options are available for people with MS. A physical therapist or another healthcare professional can help a person choose the best option for them.
Wheelchair types include:
- Manual wheelchair: This type of chair provides mobility while a person is sitting. A person can rotate the hand rims manually to move the chair. This option may be most suitable for someone with MS who experiences fatigue and an unsteady gait and has the strength and ability to rotate the hand rims manually.
- Power wheelchair: A power wheelchair uses batteries, and a person can usually control it with buttons and a joystick on one of the armrests. Someone with MS may need a power wheelchair if they need support to stay upright while sitting and do not have the strength or ability to use a manual wheelchair.
- Power wheelchair with specialized seating: This type of power wheelchair is customizable to a person’s needs. It may allow a person to raise their legs, elevate into a standing position, and perform other functions. A person who has decreased control of their head and trunk, asymmetrical alignment of their trunk or pelvis, or a limited ability to reposition themselves may need a power chair with specialized seating.
- Motorized scooter: A scooter is battery-powered and may have three or four wheels. It provides seated support and requires less effort than using a manual wheelchair or walking. A scooter may be suitable for someone with MS who has enough core strength and adequate posture to balance without extra support.
Various aids for everyday tasks can help people with MS who have decreased coordination, vision, and fine motor skills.
- Grab bars: Grab bars attach to a wall so that a person can hold onto them for support. A person may need grab bars in the bathroom to help them lower and raise their body to use the toilet or bathtub, as well as in other areas of the home.
- Tools for fine motor skills: Tools that hold books, turn pages automatically, or help a person grip small objects such as pens and pencils can help them adapt to a decrease in fine motor skills.
- Kitchen devices: Tools for the kitchen, such as electric can openers, can help people with MS who have decreased muscle strength or coordination.
- Workplace aids: Large-key keyboards and ergonomic mouse devices can help someone with decreased vision or motor skills use a computer more easily and comfortably.
Assistive technology includes various options to help people with MS adapt to changes in their working and living situations.
This category includes:
- Voice activation technology: This can help a person perform tasks by speaking. A person may be able to turn lights and other devices on and off, convert speech to text, and perform many other functions that might otherwise present a challenge to someone with MS. Examples of voice command technology include Google Assistant and the Amazon Alexa and Smart Home system devices.
- Robotic assistant devices: This category includes products such as robotic arm and hand devices, which a person can control with a touch-screen device. These devices can help a person move objects or perform specific tasks and
may also helpreduce the risk of falls.
- Vision aids: Screen enlargement applications and screen readers can make screens easier to see and read for people with decreased vision.
MS can affect different people in different ways. A person can discuss their options with their doctor or physical therapist so they can decide which assistive devices may be most helpful in meeting their goals.
A person may also want to consider:
- Warranties and repairs: A person should discuss with the device provider whether they will service, repair, or replace the equipment if it breaks.
- Future needs: A person may be able to buy adaptable equipment that can continue to meet their needs as those needs change.
- Health insurance: A person should ask providers of assistive devices whether they accept Medicaid or Medicare coverage.
- Testing before purchase: An insurer may cover only one piece of equipment, so a person may benefit from testing different options before buying one.
A person can discuss providers of assistance devices with their doctor, physical therapist, or other healthcare professionals.
People can also use the National Multiple Sclerosis Society’s Find Doctors & Resources tool to search for providers of assistive devices that have credentials from the Rehabilitation Engineering & Assistive Technology Society of North America or staff who are Certified Complex Rehab Technology Suppliers.
A person may have several options to help cover the cost of assistive devices for MS, including:
- Health insurance: Medicaid, Medicare, private insurance, and other insurance providers may cover all or part of the cost of an assistive device.
- Public and private funding: State-assisted technology programs, state departments of rehabilitation, and national nonprofits may offer funds to help cover the costs of devices.
- State protection and advocacy systems: The Administration for Community Living can connect people to advocacy and legal services that may help them cover the costs of assistive devices.
- Borrowing programs: A person can search for a local Center for Independent Living through the Find Doctors & Resources tool to inquire about borrowing donated assistive devices.
- Used equipment: A person can search for used assistive devices, which may be available at a lower cost than new equipment. People can search for reputable medical equipment vendors, look for distribution programs in the AT3 Center, or access the Medicare directory to find used items.
A person should ask a medical equipment professional to assess used devices to make sure they are safe and should ask a physical therapist or other medical professional to measure the devices to ensure that they fit correctly.
Is it possible to get assistive devices for free?
A person may be able to get assistive devices for free if their medical insurance provider agrees to cover the full cost of the device or if they receive the device or the cost of the device as a donation from a public or private organization.
MS can cause a variety of symptoms that can affect a person’s mobility, balance, coordination, and vision.
Several assistive devices are available to help people with MS adapt to changes in their abilities. These include mobility devices, such as wheelchairs and canes; devices to assist in everyday activities, such as grab bars; and technological devices, such as robotic assistant devices.
Insurance plans and public and private funding programs may help people cover the costs of assistive devices for MS. Alternatively, people may be able to reduce their costs by borrowing the devices or buying used devices.