There's no question that managing multiple sclerosis (MS) is tricky, with a varying set of symptoms that can throw curveballs at both patient and doctor. While there's no definitive evidence that complementary and alternative therapies will change the course of the disease, they may help you control symptoms and improve how you feel on a day-to-day basis, says neurologist Allen Bowling, MD, author of Optimal Health with Multiple Sclerosis: A Guide to Integrating Lifestyle, Alternative, and Conventional Medicine. Still, it's important to proceed with caution and keep your doctor in the loop, because even so-called natural remedies can have negative side effects and may actually worsen your prognosis. The following are some of the unconventional approaches with real potential.
This ancient practice, part of traditional Chinese medicine, may help relieve pain as well as bowel and bladder issues, depression, fatigue and anxiety, Dr. Bowling says. He notes that patients should be wary of acupuncturists who recommend using Chinese herbs, though: "Many of those herbs in fact activate the immune system, which could cause flare-ups or block the effects of your medications," he explains.
Want to work those knots out? Getting a rubdown is worth a try, Dr. Bowling says: "Some research shows that it may help with relieving muscle stiffness and pain, and it also promotes relaxation."
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"Even just a half to one degree of increase in body temperature can cause difficulty in nerve functioning in MS patients," Dr. Bowling notes. That's why many people with MS have heat sensitivity. Cooling garments, like scarves or vests, can temporarily improve a variety of symptoms.
As the hallmark lesions associated with MS accumulate in the brain, cognitive function can suffer. But cognitive rehabilitation strategies, such as memory retraining, have been known to help with this aspect of the disease. A study published in the Journal of Neurology found that patients who underwent a 10-session intervention to boost memory experienced both behavioral improvements and enhanced brain activation.
Speech pathologists can help MS patients not only with speech difficulties like slurred language but also with a potentially more serious problem: swallowing. Damage in the areas of the brain that control muscles used for swallowing can lead to choking and even aspiration pneumonia, in which bits of inhaled food trigger lung infections. Simple changes, like eating foods with a different texture, can help.
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Injections of this drug, made from a bacterial toxin, are usually associated with helping frown lines, but they're also used to alleviate bladder problems among people with MS. (Symptoms of MS include incontinence, constipation, frequent urination and difficulty emptying the bladder.) Botox can calm these muscles so that the body is able to remove waste more efficiently. "It's similar to what Botox does when used for cosmetic purposes," says Nicholas LaRocca, PhD, vice president of health care delivery and policy research at the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.
Vitamins and minerals
You already know that having insufficient vitamin D may lead to a higher risk of MS. So talk to your doctor about getting your levels measured; if they're low, you may want to try supplements. You might also consider vitamin B12. "It is essential in the formation of new cells, including nerve cells," says Deneb Bates, ND, of the International Multiple Sclerosis Management Practice in New York City. Another option: magnesium. A relaxant and laxative, it helps with insomnia and constipation and may also reduce muscle spasms.