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Multiple Sclerosis

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Nerve cells in the brain

Credit: Barbara Calabrese, UC San Diego

Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a disease of the central nervous system. In MS the body’s immune system attacks myelin, which coats nerve cells. Symptoms of MS include muscle weakness (often in the hands and legs), tingling and burning sensations, numbness, chronic pain, coordination and balance problems, fatigue, vision problems, and difficulty with bladder control. People with MS also may feel depressed and have trouble thinking clearly.

MS is the most common disabling neurological disease affecting young adults. It generally strikes people aged 20–40 and more commonly affects women. It affects some 400,000 Americans, and about 2.5 million people worldwide. The most common form of the disease is called relapsing-remitting MS, in which symptoms come and go.

Although MS has no cure, some conventional treatments can improve symptoms, reduce the number and severity of relapses, and delay the disease’s progression. Many people with MS try some form of complementary health approach, often special diets (such as the Swank diet, which is low in saturated fats and high in polyunsaturated fatty acids, such as fish oils) and dietary supplements.

Bottom Line

Some complementary health practices, like yoga or tai chi, may help ease some symptoms of MS. There’s no evidence that any dietary supplement is effective for MS.

  • Mind and Body Practices
    • Practicing yoga may help with fatigue and mood, but not with mobility or thinking ability.
    • A few studies have investigated the potential of acupuncture for MS symptoms, and those that have noted benefit have been criticized for having less rigorous methods.
    • Reflexology (applying pressure to the soles of the feet) may reduce a burning or prickling sensation associated with MS; however, larger studies are needed to provide a reliable conclusion.
  • Dietary Supplements
    • Fish oil supplements have not been shown to be helpful for MS.
    • Ginkgo has not been shown to enhance the ability to think clearly and logically in people with MS.
    • Results of a large, 5-year study suggest that low blood levels of vitamin D may be a risk factor for long-term disease activity and progression. However, more studies need to be done to determine if taking vitamin D supplements is beneficial.
  • Other Complementary Health Approaches
    • Research involving pulsed magnetic therapy (devices that use an electrical current to generate a magnetic field) has shown mixed results for MS-related fatigue.
    • Bee sting, or bee venom, therapy (which involves placing live bees on certain parts of the body and allowing them to sting) seems to have no effect on either MS symptoms or disease progression.
    • Chemicals in marijuana known as THC/cannabinoids may relieve spasticity and/or pain in people with MS. While no marijuana-derived medications are approved by the Food and Drug Administration to treat MS in the United States, Canada and some European countries have approved Sativex®, a plant-derived cannabinoid prescription drug mouth spray containing THC delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD), for MS-related muscle control. It’s unknown if smoking marijuana helps with MS. Researchers have not conducted enough large-scale clinical trials that show that the benefits of the marijuana plant (as opposed to its cannabinoid ingredients) outweigh its risks in patients it’s meant to treat.

Safety

  • Reflexology, yoga, and tai chi are generally considered safe.
  • Acupuncture is considered to be safe when performed by a trained practitioner.
  • Bee venom therapy may carry the risk of anaphylaxis, a potentially life-threatening allergic reaction.
  • Cannabinoid medications, which should only be taken when prescribed and monitored by a physician, are generally well tolerated. They may cause dizziness, anxiety, and short-term and long-term problems with memory and concentration. A small number of people may experience nausea/vomiting, constipation, and dry or sore mouth.
  • Marijuana can be addictive.
  • People who smoke marijuana frequently can have the same breathing problems faced by tobacco smokers (daily cough and phlegm, more frequent lung illness, and a higher risk of lung infections); it also can affect the heart.
  • If you’re considering a dietary supplement, remember that “natural” does not mean “safe.” Some dietary supplements may have side effects, and some may interact with drugs and other supplements. Taking too much of some supplements, such as vitamin D, can be harmful—and even life-threatening.

For more information on MS, please see the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke Web site, as well as the information available on MedlinePlus.

This page last modified September 24, 2017