Non-Traditional Therapies

In the past 20 years, patients have more pro-actively explored healing options from other cultures and traditions that are outside the mainstream medical protocol.  A whole industry of “complementary” or “alternative” medical and non-medical health providers has developed to meet their needs. (You’ll also hear them referred to as “holistic,” “natural,” “non-traditional,” or even “new age.”) The best of these options are those that encourage a discipline of good nutrition, frequent exercise, and a healthy lifestyle. TurnFirst urges that if you want to explore these options you do so under the care and review of a neurologist or nurse practitioner.

Are they “alternative” or “complementary”?  There are no “alternative” medical treatments proven to improve MS, therefore these treatments are best used as “complements” to the primary medical MS treatments. Complementary treatments often are helpful on an individual basis for symptom management and the overall support of health and fitness.

Are complementary treatments effective? Among the options, patients have found a mixed bag of true benefits, scams, and wishful thinking.  As you do research, you are likely to hear some compelling individual stories about how alternative and complementary treatments have been helpful—even miraculous.  It’s important to understand that the primary difference between mainstream medical treatment and many alternative treatments is usually the science behind them.  For all its flaws, mainstream medicine is bound to protocols, peer and governmental reviews, and the Hippocratic Oath, “First do no harm.”   Alternative medicine traditionally is not as closely regulated.  However, several organizations, such as the the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), of the National Institutes of Health, have established prestigious centers to study alternative and complementary treatments, explore their benefits, and bring the effective ones into the mainstream. Proponents of alternative medicine have begun to adopt clinical methods for testing their treatments in an effort to measure, quantify, and validate their effectiveness.  Without proper clinical studies, patients are left to subjective personal accounts and savvy marketing.  To be valid, the results of a study must be reproducible by others—sometimes referred to as “independent verification.”  So just because a study has been done, doesn’t mean that it is valid—especially if the study was paid for or conducted by people who have a commercial interest in getting positive results.  Therefore, it’s vitally important to be an educated and pragmatic consumer if you are considering these options.

A few options.  There are more alternative treatments available than we can address here and each one has its own set of considerations. If you want to learn a lot about these options, NCCAM is an excellent place to start.  Just like traditional medicine, complementary treatments must be undertaken with certified professionals who will take the time to understand your medical history. The following options have generally proven safe when administered by a properly trained and certified health provider:

  • Massage and “bodywork.  Massage is one of those healing arts that has been embraced both as part of some formal medical therapies (such as physical therapy).  Its benefits are well documented, including improving blood circulation and muscle flexibility.  There are many types of massage—including Swedish, Reiki, and deep tissue.  There are also a variety of “bodywork’ techniques, such as cupping, hot stone therapy, and cranial-sacral work, which claim benefits for relaxation and healing. These are generally unproven, yet popular, practices that have many schools of practice.  Most involve quiet, non-invasive, hands-on bodywork.  Any benefits may be mostly mental and/or subjective, but sometimes an hour of quiet time with someone channeling good energy may be just what you need.
  • Acupuncture.  This is the ancient Chinese art of inserting very thin needles along energy meridians to bring the body into balance.  It has undergone extensive medical review and has primarily proven effective for some forms of pain.  In a 1997 statement, the National Institute of Health gave it a mixed review, but indicated that some of the results were “promising” if not conclusive.  Acupressure is a form of this practice that uses manual pressure rather than needles.  Acupuncture is not indicated as a treatment for MS.
  • Special diets.  Every doctor will tell you a well-balanced diet rich in natural foods and whole grains will go a long way to helping you improve and/or maintain your health. There seem to be diets to “cure” everything these days and the recommendations seem to always be changing. When it comes to MS, there are two predominate theories that have, if nothing else, stood the test of time.  The first relates to the nature of the fats in our diet.  Most notably the “Swank Diet” (advocated by Dr. Roy Swank for more than 35 years) proposes that people with MS do not process fat like everyone else and that by avoiding saturated and transfats, we can interrupt or suppress the disease process.  Just as importantly, by eating “healthy fats” full of omega-3 fatty acids, we can reduce inflammation and protect our nervous systems.  The second is the “allergy-free” diet.  This approach is based on the theory that our bodies have not caught up to our now-global food options.  By eliminating common food allergens, such as wheat and corn, we can quiet our immune system and make it less likely to overact or misbehave.  There are a lot of people who will tell you that these diets have been very helpful to them.  By and large, these are people who have followed the diets over a long period of time under medical supervision and with the care to ensure that the diets are well-balanced to meet all their nutritional needs.  They require a great deal of discipline and can be difficult to pursue without the assistance of a doctor or dietician.  Most doctors are proponents of standard, well-balanced diets.
  • Meditation.  When done consistently and with some training, meditation can be a wonderful way to reduce stress.  It can also be used to support changes in behavior (such as the stress response) and promote relaxation.  There have been many studies done on meditation and the benefits seem worthwhile.  There are numerous books and tapes available to help you in these areas.  See our wellbeing section for more information.
  • Yoga and Tai Chi.  While quite different, these popular, gentle forms of exercise that can be tailored to different skill levels.  They have been shown to improve strength, flexibility, and coordination.  They can also be tailored to different levels of age and ability.  It is best to learn from a certified instructor.

Some alternative treatments can hurt you. There are a lot of misconceptions out there about what is effective.  Here are a few things we advise you to avoid because they could have harmful side-effects and/or are simply bogus:

  • Immune boosting supplements. Do not use Echinacea, zinc, colloidal silver, Ginseng, and other supplements claiming to “strengthen” or boost the immune system.  Keep in mind that most clinical MS treatments are trying to calm or suppress the immune system, because your immune system is not functioning properly.  Using these types of non-regulated supplements as “drugs” can be dangerous and may actually work against other medical protocols you are pursuing.
  • Exotic supplements.  There are all kinds of ads on the Web for supplements that make claims to cure just about anything.  Some claim use from ancient sources, Chinese “medicine,” and Indian tribes. Avoid these things. You are just asking for trouble.
  • Filling extraction due to dental amalgam. There was a theory that the mercury in teeth filings was a cause of MS and that by removing them people could experience spontaneous recoveries.  It has been studied thoroughly and there is no evidence for this claim.  In 2001, the Journal of the American Dental Association published a paper on the controversy that found “there is no risk of adverse health effects” from dental amalgam.  Most dentists don’t use metal filings anymore anyways.  If you need your filings replaced for other reasons, that’s OK.  The extraction process, when done properly, is safe for MS patients.
  • Venom therapy—snakes and bees. Venom therapy has been a popular mythology for probably hundreds of years.  So much so, that a person hawking false goods is known as a “snake oil” salesman. The theory here is that small doses of a poison will inspire the immune system to function more effectively and/or produce natural steroids to reduce swelling.  It’s so obviously dangerous that it’s usually only tried by people who are feeling desperate and out of traditional options.  Bee sting therapy (“apitherapy”) has the added downside that it’s painful and you can develop a severe—even life threatening—allergic reaction to bee venom. 
  • Hyperbaric Oxygen.  This treatment involves breathing oxygen in a high-pressure chamber, which has the effect of pumping more oxygen into your body.  It is used by deep-sea divers who have had pressure problems. It has been thoroughly studied and there is no evidence that it is a useful treatment for MS.  Avoid it.
  • Chelation Therapy.  This treatment filters metals out of your blood—including the ones you need and rely on like iron.  The theory is that heavy metals, such as mercury and lead, get into our bodies through food and environment and cause havoc with our immune systems.  There may be a small number of people who have high levels of toxic metals in their systems and blood work can tell doctors what they need to know to help identify and treat these patients. Chelation therapy is not a treatment for MS.
  • Radical diets.  If you do enough research about MS and diet, you might eventually think there is nothing you can eat anymore.  There are many schools of thought and theories on diet and they are always changing.  As a rule of thumb, avoid anything extreme and only pursue diets under proper medical care.

Read "Evaluating Non-Traditional Therapies" for some guidance when considering any non-traditional therapy.

As you do your research, a good resource is Quack Watch--an organization with a “mission to combat health-related frauds, myths, fads, fallacies, and misconduct.” They even have a special article just on MS.