Some people diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS) feel like their arms get very heavy. Members of MyMSTeam regularly describe feelings of weakness and heaviness in their arms. While it may not be one of the first symptoms that comes to mind when thinking of MS, having heavy arms is just one of many MS symptoms that people can experience.
It’s important for those diagnosed with MS (as well as those who love and care for them) to understand why MS might cause arms to feel heavy, what can result from this heaviness, and how to treat it. That way, those diagnosed with MS can work with their health care team to continue their usual daily activities and maintain their quality of life.
Heavy arms with MS can take many forms. It can be a minor inconvenience, or it can make regular activities difficult. It may occur all the time, or it may come on suddenly and resolve just as fast. Arm heaviness is usually associated with muscle weakness. As one MyMSTeam member said, “My arms and legs feel really heavy today and very weak.”
Regardless of the cause, heaviness in the arms can make daily tasks difficult. As one member wrote, “Right now, my arms are heavy, and I’m struggling to type and use my hands.” Another commented, “My arms are too heavy to hold the razor.”
Many members find that heaviness in their arms is intermittent and can sometimes occur out of the blue. One member wrote, “I can have heaviness in my arms for five hours, then it’s gone.” Another member shared, “All of a sudden, I feel like I’m really shaky and my arms feel heavy.” It’s also common for the heaviness to occur on one side only.
Some members find that heavy arms occur so frequently that on their “good” days, they try to get as much done as possible. As one member wrote, “If I wake up and can lift my arms and feel OK, it then becomes a ‘WASH YOUR HAIR’ day before I lose my arm strength.”
Arm weakness can be persistent or severe enough to impact all aspects of life. As one member shared, “I was a joiner for 30 years, but my arms got so weak, I had to pack it in. Now I am 54, and I miss the work and the banter.”
Clearly, heavy arms affect many people diagnosed with MS. It can set limits on their daily lives and overall well-being.
Heavy arms associated with MS are usually a result of muscle weakness — one of the condition’s common symptoms. Muscle weakness can be caused by a number of factors, including lack of use, nerve damage, fatigue, or an oncoming flare-up.
MS is an autoimmune disease that causes damage to the myelin sheath — the protective coating around nerves in the central nervous system (the spinal cord and brain) — and the nerve fibers themselves. This damage is referred to as demyelination. It causes areas of damage (known as lesions) to form on the nerves.
In people with MS, the immune system’s attacks on the central nervous system affect the way the muscles work. These attacks can cause weakness (including in the arms), stiffness, spasms, pain, and lack of coordination. As a result of this demyelination, people with MS can also experience vision problems (like blurry vision or loss of vision), bladder problems, or bowel problems (including incontinence).
Deconditioning occurs when people stop using their muscles. When muscles are not used regularly, they become smaller (also called atrophy or muscle wasting) and weaker. This is a common struggle for MyMSTeam members, as many find it harder to exercise and stay active due to fatigue, heat sensitivity, and mobility problems. Over time, this can lead to weak arms that feel heavy.
Fatigue, or extreme tiredness, is one of the most common MS symptoms. It affects roughly 80 percent of people with MS, according to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. This fatigue may be contributing to your muscle weakness. As one MyMSTeam member described, “I also suffer from terrible bouts of fatigue. One minute I am walking about my bungalow, then I collapse with no notice, absolutely shattered.”
Some people experience muscle spasms as a symptom of MS. Neurologists may treat this symptom by prescribing medications like Lioresal (baclofen) or Zanaflex (tizanidine). For some, medications intended to treat spasticity can increase muscle weakness. As one member shared, “I find it difficult to turn doorknobs or open jars, as my hand and arm strength has left me. I’m not sure if this is the MS or the high dose of baclofen I take to reduce spasticity.”
Weakness is also listed as a potential side effect for several disease-modifying therapies for MS, including Avonex (interferon beta 1a), Betaseron (interferon beta 1b), Extavia (interferon beta 1b), Plegridy (peginterferon beta 1a), and Rebif (interferon beta 1a). Weakness associated with these medications is usually temporary, and it is often associated with other side effects, such as flu-like symptoms.
You and your health care provider will need to work together to determine how to treat your muscle weakness and heavy arms. Managing heavy arms associated with MS usually begins with treating the underlying MS. Aside from these treatments, there are several other ways you can address this weakness and manage heavy arms.
Physical therapists can come up with an exercise plan that should keep your arms healthy and strong. They can also help you with exercises tailored to the cause of your arm weakness. Ask your neurologist for a referral to a physical therapist who has worked with people diagnosed with MS and understands the condition.
Occupational therapists can help you find ways to complete daily tasks if arm heaviness is getting in the way of your regular routine. They may show you how to perform daily tasks in different ways so you can still get them done even when your arms feel heavy.
For those whose muscle weakness may be worsened by deconditioning and muscle atrophy, exercise can be helpful. Exercise can also help prevent the development of related health conditions (known as comorbidities). Comorbidities common in MS include high blood pressure.
Not everyone has the means or the opportunity to work with a physical therapist, but there are plenty of safe exercises people with MS can do at home. The U.K.-based MS Society has some suggestions for simple exercises to manage balance and fatigue. When muscle weakness in the arms is caused by demyelination and nerve damage, exercise is still important, but it must be modified to avoid fatiguing damaged nerves.
Some MyMSTeam members report improving their fatigue with prescribed medications, including Symmetrel (amantadine), Provigil (modafinil), Adderall (amphetamine/dextroamphetamine), Ritalin (methylphenidate), and Concerta (methylphenidate). Other members mention that making dietary changes or taking certain supplements have helped them with their MS fatigue. Always talk to your doctor before beginning any new medications or supplements.
MyMSTeam is the social network for people diagnosed with MS and those who love them. Join today to start sharing your journey, asking questions, and joining ongoing conversations. Before long, you’ll be connecting every day with people around the world who also live with multiple sclerosis.
Have you experienced heavy arms associated with multiple sclerosis, or did your diagnosis of MS come with other symptoms? How have you managed heavy arms and muscle weakness with MS? Share your tips in the comments below or by posting on MyMSTeam.