Thinking outside the box: The use of non-conventional treatments for MS

Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) is becoming increasingly recognized as an important component of disease management, and growing evidence has been able to demonstrate the benefits of non-conventional treatment approaches for MS.

A treatment is considered to be complementary when it is used alongside traditional therapies, and is alternative if it is the only health approach being used. The American Academy of Neurology recently released evidence-based guidelines for the use of CAMs in MS. The guidelines were created based on data from high quality research studies. According to researchers who conducted the review, 33-80% of the people living with MS use CAMs, and females who report higher education levels and poorer health make up the highest proportion of this group.

Certain CAMs, including yoga, music therapy, acupuncture, chiropractic medicine, and massage therapy remain to be fully supported by strong scientific evidence, which makes it challenging for researchers and medical practitioners to affirm their ability to treat MS. The good news is that, with better technology and larger, well-designed clinical trials, we have a better idea of those CAMs which are helpful, or harmful, for people living with MS.

In this post I summarize some of the key findings from studies looking at various CAMs, and if you would like to see the full list of CAMs that were investigated in the recent AAN review, I invite you read through the full article.

ginko

Ginkgo biloba (photo credit: Taj Pharmaceuticals Ltd)


Reflexology

Reflexology is a type of therapy that involves applying manual pressure to points on the feet. A group of studies recently demonstrated that reflexology may help to reduce uncomfortable skin sensations, known as paresthesia. However, researchers noted that the evidence is still weak, and that further research is required to comment on its ability to treat other MS symptoms such as pain, fatigue, or anxiety.

Ginkgo biloba

Ginkgo biloba (GB) is a type of tree species from which supplements have long been developed and used for a variety of reasons. Recent studies involving the use of GB in MS showed that GB was well tolerated and, in one small study, had a significant effect in reducing fatigue. However, data also showed that GB does not improve cognition and treatment may result in side effects such as increased risk of bleeding.

Magnetic therapy

Six studies were examined to evaluate the effectiveness of magnetic therapy in MS. Magnetic therapy involves applying a magnetic field to the body by using or wearing magnetic items. Data from studies involving the use of magnetic therapy revealed that this approach is generally safe and potentially effective for reducing fatigue in people with relapsing-remitting MS. However, studies found that magnetic therapy was ineffective for treating depression in people with MS.

Low-fat diet with omega-3 fatty acids

Research has generally indicated a positive role for a low-fat diet that includes omega-3 fatty acid supplementation, which can be accessed through the consumption of fish oil. A review of three recent studies led researchers to suggest that this particular diet is likely ineffective in reducing relapses, disability and lesions in MS, as well as for improving fatigue and quality of life. You can read more about research on the impact of diet in MS on the MS Society website.

Medical marijuana

A number of studies have been reviewed to evaluate the benefit of various forms of medical marijuana (also referred to as medical cannabis) for managing MS-related symptoms, which have reported varying conclusions. Currently, Sativex® oromucosal cannabinoid spray is the only approved cannabis-derived treatment for MS in Canada. As well, inhaled cannabis can be prescribed for the treatment of spasticity and pain. Although effective, researchers note that inhaled cannabis may be potentially linked to adverse behavioural and cognitive effects which are still being looked at further in several studies. Check out a previous blog post I wrote which discusses the latest evidence on medical marijuana and MS.

The MS Society is committed to providing support and information to Canadians affected by MS. It is important for anyone who is considering complementary or alternative therapies to speak with a health care professional before beginning a new treatment.

Do you have any experience using CAM therapies for MS? Share what you think about these approaches by leaving a comment below!

9 thoughts on “Thinking outside the box: The use of non-conventional treatments for MS

  1. Colin Alton

    Hello, I have very aggressive ppms. I suffer from extreme exhaustion along with other symptoms. I could really use some advice on some CAM’s to try. Any advice would be greatly appreciated.

    Reply
    1. drkarenlee Post author

      Hi Colin,

      Thank you your comment. Research on CAMs is helping to address whether certain approaches are safe and effective for treating MS symptoms. This research is necessary to properly inform people with MS and their healthcare teams on which CAMs are safe to try and are able to help with things like pain and fatigue. I invite you to visit our website to learn more about CAMs as well as advise that you consult with your physician before starting any new treatments.

      Dr. K

      Reply
  2. Cindy

    Hi there. Thank you for this article. I have had MS for 14 years, and have definitely felt the need to try CAMS as a way to manage my disease. The most helpful to me is not mentioned in your article, I use Essential oils to help with fatigue, immune support, and pain relief all with fairly good results. Perhaps you will want to look into the area of essential oils as a CAM as well for a future article such as this. I particularly have been recieving (and am now certified to give) “Aroma Touch” Essential oil treatments, a therapy designed by an Essential oil company called Doterra. 8 Essential oils are applied to the back, ears and feet To adress Stress, Immune function, Inflamation, and Homeostasis. (I am aware that there are a few EO companies that sell quality Essential oils, its is my conviction that EOs work, and as long as you are informed and comfortable with your source then great. I hate the whole this company is better than that..) Thanks again for your article. It helps me know what CAMs I might like to try and or Avoid.

    Reply
    1. drkarenlee Post author

      Hi Cindy,

      Thank you for reading the blog and posting your comment. The article I summarized, prepared by the American Academy of Neurology, does not mention essential oils or aromatherapy. This could reflect a gap in research in this area which makes it challenging to determine if these approaches are effective in treating MS symptoms. However, with larger, more well-defined biological studies and clinical trials, I am confident that clearer information will be available on various CAMs that will help to inform the use of CAMs for MS. I did find a study that looked at a particular essential oil that showed benefits in mice with an MS-like disease. As I mentioned, more work is needed to understand if and how CAMs like essential oils and aromatherapy can reduce MS symptoms. In the meantime I invite you to read more about CAMs on the MS Society website.

      Dr. K

      Reply
  3. Rita Kindl Myers

    I have found that heating dark leafy green vegetables daily basis reduces fast fatigue and improves brain functioning as well as supplying me with good energy. So, I eat 2 bowls a day full of kale, spinach, collard greens, parsley or romaine lettuce.

    Reply
  4. Teri Dugan

    When I was diagnosed eight years ago, I heard a recording of an interview with Dr. Alan Bowling (http://www.neurologycare.net/my-first-post.html) and CAM. Then he came to the annual MS Society meeting in the Philadelphia area and I went to see him. I got his book and read through it with a highlighter. I had Vitamin D levels added to my annual blood work with my primary and added D-3 to get mine to a better level. Then added both Evening Primrose and Flax Seed to my regiment. Later added Vitamin E for some hot flashes. I’ve had to stop all of this to deal with some kidney stones – they cause the blood to thin and I’ve had some procedures. I miss taking the oils especially as an unrelated help is to the joints! I recommend his book “Complementary and Alternative Medicine and Multiple Sclerosis,” as it is a pretty good guide to CAM.

    Reply
    1. drkarenlee Post author

      Hi Teri,

      Thank you for your comment and for sharing your story about using CAMs. Certain CAMs such as vitamin supplementation and incorporation of specialized diets to treat MS symptoms are still poorly understood, but with improved technology and better study design, I am hopeful that new research evidence will better inform decisions around these and other CAM approaches. I invite you to visit the MS Society website to learn more about CAMs and MS. We will continue to update our content as more information becomes available.

      Dr. K

      Reply

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