Multiple sclerosis, or MS, is an autoimmune disease in which the immune system attacks the protective covering of nerve cells (myelin) in the brain and spinal cord, impairing nerve signaling and causing a variety of symptoms.
This is a lifelong condition, but there are a variety of ways people with MS can prevent the disease from progressing, and treat or cope with symptoms.
This article discusses complementary and alternative medicine treatment options for MS.
Alternative vs. Complementary Therapies
Alternative therapies are treatment options that are used instead of modern medical options, while a complementary therapy is a treatment option used in conjunction with modern medicine. The same treatments can be used as either alternative or complementary therapies.
A number of complementary or alternative therapies can be used to help treat multiple sclerosis, including exercise, diet, acupuncture and other natural treatments.
Exercise is recommended for people with MS as it has been shown to improve symptoms and help with mental and physical health. Adapted options are available for people who have physical disabilities.
Exercise may also help change the course of the disease by slowing its progression, but more research is needed.
Physical activity options for people with MS depend on ability and preference, and may include:
- Aerobic exercise
- Strength training
- Swimming or water exercise
- Hobbies that involve movement
- Stair climbing
- Gardening, cooking, and household chores
- Yoga, Pilates, tai chi
People with MS are advised to eat a nutritious, well-balanced diet to help manage symptoms and improve overall health and well-being. Nutrition may play a role in slowing the progression of MS, but more research is needed.
Some nutrition recommendations to help manage MS include:
- Eat plenty of vegetables, fruits, and legumes (beans, lentils, peas, and peanuts).
- Limit salt, animal fat, fried foods, and sugar.
- Focus on lower-calorie foods.
- Avoid overeating.
It is unclear if massage therapy improves MS, but there is research to support limited benefits without harm.
Massage may help people with symptoms such as:
Acupuncture is the use of needles inserted into the skin to stimulate different places on the body called “acupoints,” or acupressure points. This treatment may help to reduce symptoms of MS, but there is limited research to show its effectiveness.
Some MS symptoms that acupuncture may improve include:
Medical marijuana (cannabis) may help reduce specific symptoms caused by MS. It may improve MS symptoms such as:
- Spasticity: Extreme muscle stiffness or tightness
- Pain: Reduced pain related to spasticity
- Bladder challenges: Decreased need to urinate
As with any treatment option, the potential benefits must be considered along with the possible side effects. It is important to work with a healthcare professional when considering cannabis for MS treatment and to seek help if experiencing any side effects, especially and changes in mental health.
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For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.
Pulsed Electromagnetic Field Therapy (PEMF)
PEMF uses small electrical currents to help stabilize leaking cell membranes. PEMF circulates cellular fluid and by-products of the damaged tissue to reduce swelling, inflammation, and pain. This treatment option can be used for MS symptoms.
PEMF has been shown to improve:
- Sensations such as burning or prickling
- Quality of life
PEMF has been found ineffective in treating bladder challenges and disability.
An advantage to PEMF is that it does not appear to cause side effects. While there is limited research showing the effectiveness in treating MS symptoms, this treatment is not harmful to try.
Living with a chronic illness such as MS can be stressful, especially when symptoms interfere with daily life.
Mind-body techniques are a way of reducing stress and improving MS symptoms. They are a group of methods or practices that work by focusing on both the mind (such as thoughts, awareness, and emotions) and the body (such as physical sensations).
Mind-body techniques that have been shown to be effective in reducing MS symptoms include:
- Biofeedback: Uses a device to track body measurements such as heart rate and muscle tension and may improve MS bladder control
- Mindfulness-based stress reduction: Combines awareness of body sensations, thoughts, feelings, and the environment with relaxation and stress-relief techniques and has been shown to improve depression, anxiety, fatigue, and quality of life among people with MS
- Relaxation: Uses skills such as breathing and guided imagery and has been shown to improve quality of life
- Yoga: Combines mindfulness with body movements and has been shown to help MS fatigue
Reflexology involves pressing on specific areas on the feet and hands to stimulate other parts of the body, including internal organs.
While this treatment is considered safe and may help with MS sensations such as burning or prickling, more research is needed.
Cooling therapy, also called therapeutic hypothermia, lowers the body’s temperature by placing a device, ice packs, or something cool on the head or body. People with MS tend to be sensitive to heat and an increased body temperature can make symptoms worse.
The connection between heat and symptoms can also make it difficult for MS patients to exercise, so cooling therapy can be used before and during exercise. This treatment has been found safe for people with MS and can help prevent heat-related symptoms from getting worse.
Finding the Right Treatment
Everyone is different, and deciding on a treatment protocol is personal. It is important for people with MS to make these decisions with healthcare professionals to help guide them with their specific MS and health needs.
Safety and Side Effects
The safety and effectiveness of complementary and alternative treatments for MS depend on the specific treatment and the individual. While they are generally considered safe, many of these treatment options have not been thoroughly studied.
Research on the effectiveness of complementary and alternative treatments is limited, too. People with more mild symptoms and in the earlier stages of the disease may experience better results than people with more severe symptoms, or who are further along in their disease progression.
Starting certain medications early can be important in preventing the disease from progressing. It’s best to discuss what treatment option is best with a healthcare professional.
When to See a Healthcare Provider
Anyone experiencing symptoms of MS or considering treatment options should consult a healthcare provider. It is important for patients and healthcare providers to make the decision together to get the best possible health outcomes for long-term disease management.
Multiple sclerosis is a lifelong medical condition with a wide range of symptoms that can interfere with daily life. Alternative and complementary options can be helpful in treating MS symptoms, and include nutrition, exercise, mind-body techniques, and more.
While some people are able to manage their symptoms and illness with alternative treatments alone, others may need to use a combination of natural and conventional treatments.
A Word From Verywell
Suspecting, being diagnosed with, and living with multiple sclerosis can be challenging. There are many conventional and natural treatment options available, often making it confusing to know what’s right for you. Reach out to a healthcare professional for support and guidance in determining what treatment plan is best for you.
Frequently Asked Questions
Can multiple sclerosis be treated naturally?
Some people are able to manage MS naturally without medications, while others use natural treatments alongside medications. This may change over time. For example, someone with MS may use medications only when symptoms are elevated and manage the disease naturally at other times.
How do you reduce MS inflammation?
You can reduce MS inflammation with medication, or by using complementary and alternative options such as changes in diet, exercise, sleep, stress relief, and by living a more healthy lifestyle.
How effective are alternative treatments for MS?
The effectiveness of alternative treatments for MS depends on the treatment and the individual. Some people have mild symptoms or are in the early stages of disease progression, while others have more severe symptoms or have a more advanced condition that requires medication in addition to natural treatments.