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Multiple Sclerosis

NIGMS_NeuronGlia3_MS
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 ages 20 to 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, may help ease some symptoms of MS. There’s no evidence that any dietary supplement is effective for MS.

  • Psychological and Physical Approaches
    • 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 U.S. 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 and yoga 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 website, as well as the information available on MedlinePlus.

For More Information

NCCIH Clearinghouse

The NCCIH Clearinghouse provides information on NCCIH and complementary and integrative health approaches, including publications and searches of Federal databases of scientific and medical literature. The Clearinghouse does not provide medical advice, treatment recommendations, or referrals to practitioners.

Toll-free in the U.S.: 1-888-644-6226

tty (for deaf and hard-of-hearing callers):

1-866-464-3615

Website: https://nccih.nih.gov/

Email: info@nccih.nih.gov (link sends email)

National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS)

NINDS conducts and supports research on how the brain and nervous system function and on treatments for neurological diseases.

Multiple Sclerosis Information Page

Toll-free in the U.S.: 1-800-352-9424

Website: https://www.ninds.nih.gov

Know the Science

NCCIH and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) provide tools to help you understand the basics and terminology of scientific research so you can make well-informed decisions about your health. Know the Science features a variety of materials, including interactive modules, quizzes, and videos, as well as links to informative content from Federal resources designed to help consumers make sense of health information.

Explaining How Research Works (NIH)

Know the Science: 9 Questions To Help You Make Sense of Health Research

Understanding Clinical Studies (NIH)

PubMed®

A service of the National Library of Medicine, PubMed® contains publication information and (in most cases) brief summaries of articles from scientific and medical journals. For guidance from NCCIH on using PubMed, see How To Find Information About Complementary Health Approaches on PubMed.

Multiple Sclerosis and Complementary Health Approaches—Randomized Controlled Trials

Website: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/

MedlinePlus

To provide resources that help answer health questions, MedlinePlus (a service of the National Library of Medicine) brings together authoritative information from the National Institutes of Health as well as other Government agencies and health-related organizations.

Website: https://www.medlineplus.gov/

This publication is not copyrighted and is in the public domain. Duplication is encouraged.

NCCIH has provided this material for your information. It is not intended to substitute for the medical expertise and advice of your health care provider(s). We encourage you to discuss any decisions about treatment or care with your health care provider. The mention of any product, service, or therapy is not an endorsement by NCCIH.

Last Updated: November 2019