- Reviewed by Lindsey Marcellin, MD, MPH
While some alternative treatments may help with pain and slow MS progression, the jury is still out on others.
Although most alternative and complementary therapies for MS haven’t been thoroughly studied and approved by conventional medical doctors, growing numbers of people with MS consider them effective at getting MS symptoms under control.
Pushpa Narayanaswami, MD, an assistant professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School and a staff physician at Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital in Boston, says people with MS often use complementary and alternative medicine to help reduce relapses or ease symptoms, usually in addition to — rather than in place of — conventional therapies.
Exploring Alternative Medicine for MS
Because so many people use alternative approaches for treating MS, the American Academy of Neurology (AAN) had a committee look at relevant research and develop complementary and alternative medicine guidelines, which were published in March 2014 in its journal Neurology.
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“We viewed a lot of treatments but did not find evidence for most therapies — not enough to say whether it is useful or not,” says Dr. Narayanaswami, who is also a spokesperson for the project. The researchers found little evidence on the safety of the different alternatives, she adds.
Alternative Treatments That May Work
MS symptoms can include fatigue, muscle spasms and stiffness, pain, weakness, and bladder problems. According to the AAN guidelines and the latest research, here are some alternative treatments that could help despite there not being an abundance of evidence.
Magnetic therapy. Magnetic therapy involves placing magnets on or near the skin. Some moderate evidence shows that magnetic therapy can help lessen tiredness. However, there is no evidence to support its use for other symptoms.
Massage. Many people with MS use massage therapy to relax, ease muscle tension, and reduce stress and depression. Though there’s no hard evidence that massage can relieve MS symptoms, it’s generally a safe therapy to pursue, especially if it makes you feel better.
Diet. The link between MS and diet isn’t fully understood, but a well-balanced eating plan can certainly help with overall health, says Kathy Costello, MS, associate vice president of clinical care for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society (NMSS). Vijayshree Yadav, MD, an assistant professor at the Multiple Sclerosis Center of Oregon Health & Science University in Portland, suggests a low-fat diet. A study she published in Neurology in April 2014 found that a plant-based, low-fat diet was safe and easy to follow for MS patients, but more study is needed to determine whether it slows the progress of MS.
Yoga. Practicing yoga on a regular basis can help reduce fatigue and improve quality of life for people living with MS. If you’re interested in starting a yoga regimen, you should keep in mind that while “yoga is practiced by many people with MS, difficult positions need to be avoided by some,” says Nancy Holland, EdD, vice president of clinical programs at the NMSS. For instance, if a position causes abnormal or unusual pain, move on to something else.
Exercise. “There’s no doubt of the beneficial effects of exercise in MS,” Dr. Yadav says. She particularly recommends walking and water aerobics for people with MS, because these exercises are less likely to cause fatigue or heat exhaustion than a higher-impact workout.
Reflexology. Reflexology involves putting pressure manually on certain points on your feet, hands, or ears that are believed to connect to the body’s organs. The evidence is weak, but it suggests that reflexology may help treat tingling, numbness, and other skin sensations associated with MS.
Medical marijuana. Using marijuana to treat MS is a controversial issue that is still undergoing long-term study. Marijuana and various cannabis products, such as pills and oral sprays, are helpful in a small percentage of people for pain and spasticity and problems with sleep, according to the AAN guidelines. The AAN researchers found evidence that synthetic medical marijuana in pill form could probably reduce spasticity and the pain it causes. Those who used it reported improvement in spasticity, but that wasn’t confirmed by tests, Narayanaswami says.
Acupuncture. This alternative therapy, which involves inserting very thin needles into specific points on the body, is a popular pain-relief strategy among people with MS, Yadav says. Some feel it also helps with muscle spasms and bladder problems, though scientific evidence has not confirmed these connections.
General Cautions About Alternative and Complementary Treatment
A number of other alternative remedies — from bee-venom therapy to evening primrose oil — also claim to treat the symptoms of MS, but no definitive evidence is available to show that these therapies work, according to the AAN.
Narayanaswami further cautions that herbal remedies are unregulated, so buyers must beware: You don’t always know what they contain. Before you try a complementary or alternative therapy, Costello says, talk with your healthcare provider to make sure you’re not putting yourself at risk of dangerous interactions.