Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) is a term for various health care options, products and practices not included in the traditional concepts of Western medicine. It has been estimated that about 60 to 80 percent of MS patients have used two to three of the available CAMs along with conventional MS treatments. While many of the CAM options have been considered for various MS symptoms, only a few have been subjected to rigorous scientific research to prove their efficacy for MS. For those investigated, the results have often been inconclusive. In general, it can be said that while CAMs offer possible improvement in symptoms associated with MS, they have no impact on disease course. The most frequently used CAMs will be discussed in this section.
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Biologically Based Therapies: Herbs, Marijuana and Bee Venom
Various herbs, such as ginkgo, ginseng, sage and turmeric, have been proposed to improve different MS symptoms (fatigue, mood and cognitive functions), but research did not provide definitive results. While most of the herbs do not pose significant risks with MS, herbs with stimulating effects on the immune system could be potentially harmful to MS patients.
Marijuana and its related products have been investigated for pain- and spasticity-improving effects. While different forms of marijuana, such as oils, pills and in its natural state, are becoming legal in an increasing number of states, it is not an FDA-approved treatment modality for MS or any other disease. Chemically, marijuana contains different substances, and only some have psychoactive properties. Research has shown possible efficacy for pain and spasticity when reported by patients, but this effect was not shown when using objective measures. The main side effects reported by patients were worsening cognitive function and balance problems.
The anti-inflammatory potential of bee venom was investigated in MS patients. No significant improvement of the disease course, nor of associated symptoms like fatigue or quality of life, was found. Bee stings can also be associated with life-threatening allergic reactions.
Yoga combines exercises aiming at stretching, balance training and muscle strengthening with mind-body awareness. Various different practices offer various intensities and demands on participants; MS patients might prefer the ones offering props, cushions and modified poses if impaired mobility is present. Various aspects of MS, physical as well as psychological, have been said to benefit from yoga. Some of the studies showed clear benefits and improvement in pain, muscle tightness, balance and strength; others did not. While the scientific world plans for more studies to clearly prove the impact of yoga on MS symptoms, individual patients should investigate this form of CAM for its possible benefits.
Use of acupuncture among MS patients is quite common, but as in previously mentioned CAMs, the research data on efficacy are sparse. Similar to other CAMs, acupuncture focuses on treatment of fatigue, pain and spasticity. Review of all available literature and reports on acupuncture for MS did not provide sufficient scientific evidence to support its use in MS, and no conclusions can be drawn. However, if performed by a trained professional, it is considered safe and well-tolerated treatment option for MS patients.
Reflexology consists of applying manual pressure to different pressure point on the feet. This approach is based on the belief that the whole body is represented on the feet, and internal organs can be stimulated by pressing specific points mostly on the soles of the feet. This form of treatment usually offers a pleasant and relaxing experience and is increasingly popular among patients. As to the efficacy of reflexology, one study showed possible effects on different perceived sensory symptoms, such as tingling and burning, and possibly also on spasticity and urinary symptoms.