Treating multiple sclerosis medically is a necessity, since it’s a progressive disease and one that has no cure. However, sometimes it seems like prescribed treatments aren’t enough or as if they can cause as many problems as they help resolve. For this reason, a lot of people – and not just MS patients – have turned to complementary and alternative medicine for treatment of their disease or condition.
Complementary and alternative medicines, or CAM, can consist of a number of types of treatment and therapies that fall outside the realm of conventional medicine, including diet, types of exercise, meditational practices, herbal remedies, and more. These are still seen as alternative medicine due to the fact that they haven’t been thoroughly tested and proven to be safe and effective for treatment.
CAM therapy defined
Technically, there is no difference between complementary and alternative medicine, except for the application. Complementary medicine supplements prescribed therapies and treatments, in the hopes of greater improvement or slower progression of the illness, especially in the case of multiple sclerosis. This becomes alternative medicine when used in place of prescribed therapy practices.
Considerations for safety and effectiveness
When entering into a course of CAM therapy, the American Academy of Neurology recommends patients consider three essential questions to determine the safety and efficacy of the treatment. These guidelines can help assure a patient doesn’t cause further damage to their central nervous symptom or the parts of the body already affected by damage to the CNS.
- Does the therapy work to reduce one or more specific symptoms of multiple sclerosis, prevent or help reduce the number of relapses a patient suffers, or prevent disabilities from occurring due to MS?
- Can the treatment worsen the disease, exacerbate symptoms, or have other serious adverse effects on the MS patient?
- Can this form of treatment interfere with other prescribed disease modifying therapies (DMTs) for MS and prevent them from working as they should?
Alternative treatment for MS: Personal guidelines
While these assessments are an excellent way to weed out some CAM treatments, assessing the treatment considered on a more personal level could also be crucial. Questions a patient could ask themselves include:
- What is involved in this sort of treatment?
- How does it work? Why is it touted as a successful treatment?
- Are there risks associated with the therapy, especially based on personal health?
- How much does the therapy cost?
A few things a patient can do to remain safe is to continue all conventional treatment methods, choose the complementary route for these alternative medications and practices, and stay in contact with their doctor and inform the physician of their choice in other care methods. It can also be beneficial to maintain a journal that documents what methods are explored and how they seem to affect overall health and MS symptoms, both negatively and positively.
Recommendations for CAM treatments
A few complementary methods for treatment are even recommended by doctors, with plenty of “proof” of benefit to patients, even if they aren’t scientifically shown to improve the disease.
- Exercise – Mobility is an issue for MS patients, and careful exercise can help improve strength, mobility, flexibility, and balance. It helps combat fatigue felt by patients as well, and certain exercises including yoga and tai chi can help reduce stress levels, easing some of the symptoms (and the inflammation that causes them).
- Diet – As with most diseases, there are certain foods that help boost energy and health, as well as those that can cause additional risk for symptoms. Speaking to a doctor or nutritionist about the correct diet for an MS patient can significantly improve overall health and reduce the effects of a relapse.
Additional CAM treatments and therapies which may be suggested but have less backing in the scientific community are also available.
- Massage – Stress and depression are significant symptoms of multiple sclerosis, and massage can help relieve both, as well as loosen tight muscles that may have been overused in compensation for those that are less effective with damage caused by the disease. This isn’t going to change the course of the disease but can help relieve some symptoms and is seen as a safe CAM therapy.
- Acupuncture – Science has not tested the theory, but in many cases, MS patients report that acupuncture (the practice of inserting needles into certain pressure points in the body) helps with relief of symptoms. Because it targets the nervous system, it is possible that claims of pain relief, reduction of muscle spasms, and increased bladder control are not just a placebo effect, and while still considered “alternative medicine” the practice has been accepted as generally safe for most people.
Ways to stay safe while receiving alternative treatment
If a patient is concerned about a particular treatment, it’s best to assess for red flags prior to jumping in headfirst. Infomercial and direct mail advertisements shouldn’t be the resource used to define the efficacy of a CAM treatment, and when reading articles, it’s important to vet that those articles are valid and medical in nature rather than advertisements disguised as articles.
Patients should be cautions about big claims, especially something touting itself as a cure, since there is no such thing. In addition, consider the source of the product. In many cases, if there is only one manufacturer rather than several competitors, it’s not likely to be safe and viable as a treatment.
Check the ingredients, don’t fall into the whirlpool of secret formulas, and assure that any product used lists all the active ingredients. In addition, don’t fall for testimonials that are all positive or come from a paid endorsement. Seek out reviews by real people, with full names, who are verified buyers on independent sites.