What Is Chelation Therapy?

When metals like lead, mercury, iron, and arsenic build up in your body, they can be toxic. Chelation therapy is a treatment that uses medicine to remove these metals so they don't make you sick.

Some alternative health care providers also use it to treat heart disease, autism, and Alzheimer's disease. But there's very little evidence it works for those conditions. In fact, chelation therapy can cause serious side effects -- including death -- especially if it's used in the wrong way.

How Does It Work?

Chelation therapy uses special drugs that bind to metals in your blood. You get the chelating medicine through an intravenous (IV) tube in your arm. It’s also available in pill form. Once the drug has attached to the metal, your body removes them both through your pee.

Metals that can be removed with chelation therapy include lead, mercury, and arsenic. Before you get this treatment, your doctor will do a blood test to make sure you have metal poisoning.

What Other Conditions Does It Treat?

Some natural health care providers and supplement companies claim they use chelation therapy to reduce symptoms of autism, Alzheimer's disease, or heart disease. Yet this treatment is only approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to treat metal poisoning.

Here's what the research shows regarding chelation treatment for these three conditions:

Autism. The use of chelation therapy to treat this condition is based on the idea that autism is caused by mercury in childhood vaccines. Studies have proven this idea to be false. But some health care providers also believe that removing metals from the body can improve autism symptoms.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) says there’s no evidence that chelation is an effective treatment for autism, and it may be dangerous. One child with the condition died after having this treatment. The AAP doesn't recommend using chelation therapy for autism, except in a clinical trial.

Alzheimer's Disease. In patients who have this, abnormal proteins called tau and beta amyloid build up in the brain and damage it. To date, no treatment can stop or reverse this disease.

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Some researchers think that a buildup of metals like copper, iron, and zinc might also play a role in Alzheimer's disease. If this is true, chelation therapy might have a place in treating it. So far, there's no evidence that it works.

Heart Disease. You get this when fatty deposits called plaques form in your arteries. These substances cause your blood vessels to narrow. They also make them less flexible, so less blood can flow through them. Artery plaques contain calcium. The chelating drug disodium EDTA binds to this mineral. The idea is that chelation therapy clears it out of the blood vessels. It removes plaques, too.

In 2002, the National Institutes of Health did a big study on chelation therapy, called TACT. It found that this treatment somewhat reduced the risk of heart attacks, strokes, and other heart problems. But it only worked in people with diabetes. The study didn't find enough proof that it treats heart disease. And so far, the FDA hasn't approved this treatment for the condition.

Side Effects

When chelation therapy is used the right way and for the right reason, it can be safe. The most common side effect is burning in the area where you get the IV. You might also experience fever, headache, and nausea or vomiting.

Chelating drugs can bind to and remove some metals your body needs, like calcium, copper, and zinc. This can lead to a deficiency in these important substances. Some people who’ve had chelation therapy also have low calcium levels in the blood and kidney damage.

Things To Watch For

Today, chelation therapy is only FDA-approved to treat metal poisoning. There just isn't enough evidence to support its use for any other condition. And, as research shows, it can be dangerous if it’s used for an unapproved reason.

Beware of any online products or health care providers who try to use this treatment for other purposes -- like Alzheimer's or heart disease. Chelating products are also not approved for home use. They can only be used with a doctor's prescription. If you're thinking about trying chelation therapy, talk to your doctor.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by William Blahd, MD on November 2, 2016

Sources

SOURCES:

National Capital Poison Center: “Chelation: Therapy or ‘Therapy’?”

Journal of Medical Toxicology: “Current Use of Chelation in American Health Care.”

Mayo Clinic: “Heart Disease.”

American Academy of Pediatrics: “Management of Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders.”

U.S. National Library of Medicine: “Challenges Associated with Metal Chelation Therapy in Alzheimer’s Disease.”

NIH, National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health: “Chelation for Coronary Heart Disease.”

FDA: “Questions and Answers on Unapproved Chelation Products.”

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