Almost all persons with multiple sclerosis turn to complementary and alternative medicines or treatments to deal with the highly variable and individualized nature of the disease, according to recent research.
The National Multiple Sclerosis Society defines a complementary treatment as one used in conjunction with conventional therapies, and an alternative therapy as one used in place of traditional treatments. These can include anything from acupuncture and herbal supplements to exercise and vitamin D — some of which are recommended by physicians.
Multiple sclerosis, for which there is no cure, is a disease in which a person’s immune system attacks the insulating sheath that surrounds nerve fibers, usually in the brain or spine. Like a short circuit in an exposed electrical wire, the resulting damage can interfere with communication between the brain and body. Symptoms can vary widely depending on the affected nerves. Some people may have few symptoms and long periods of remission, while others may lose the ability to walk or see.
Corticosteroid medications such as prednisone are the most common treatments for reducing the inflammation and symptoms associated with attacks on the nervous system. Although no therapies are currently available to slow progressive forms of MS, one of a dozen “disease-modifying agents” is usually prescribed to reduce the rate of debilitating flare-ups in the relapsing-remitting form of the disease. These include beta interferons and other immunosuppressant drugs. Muscle relaxants, pain medications and physical therapy can also be prescribed to ease certain symptoms.
A recent New Jersey survey found the most common complementary and alternative treatments among MS patients included herbs, chiropractic manipulation, massage and acupuncture. A Dutch survey echoed those findings, noting that well-educated women and people with the most severe symptoms were among those most likely to turn to alternative treatments.
An article in the March 25, 2014 issue of the journal Neurology reported how researchers set out to sift through the data on complementary and alternative medications and their relationship to MS patients. The researchers found that most of the alternatives, including acupuncture, Chinese medicine and biofeedback couldn’t be properly evaluated with regard to MS because studies were either lacking, had a high risk of bias or there wasn’t enough evidence to support or refute findings.
The analysis found that other treatments, including fish oil, ginkgo biloba and bee sting therapy were ineffective for managing most MS symptoms. Research indicates that cannabinoids (cannabis extracts) may have some beneficial effects on MS symptoms such as muscle stiffness, certain types of pain and muscle spasms, and overactive bladder, but further study is required. There is evidence that high doses of vitamin D can help relieve MS symptoms in some patients. Other things that have proven effective include eating a healthy diet, exercise and reducing stress.
Despite the mounting evidence that many complementary and alternative treatments are ineffective, there’s little indication they’re going away anytime soon. In the meantime, organizations such as the National MS Society advise MS patients to keep their doctors informed about any such medications or treatments they’re taking and to not abandon traditional therapies.
The authors of a U.S. study that appeared in The Journal of the American Osteopathic Association in 2012 concluded that, “physicians and other health care professionals must be aware of the extensive use of alternative modalities among these patients, and these professionals must provide guidance and monitoring in use of these therapies to improve outcomes.”