Complementary and Integrative Treatments for MS

Medically Reviewed by Christopher Melinosky, MD on August 16, 2023
5 min read

If you have multiple sclerosis (MS), there are many medical treatments you can use to treat your disease, like medications or physical therapy. But many people look for other ways to feel better, such as acupuncture, yoga, relaxation, herbal remedies, and massage. They’re called complementary and integrative treatments.

These therapies won’t cure your disease. But there’s evidence that some of them are helpful when you use them along with your regular treatment. For others, the science isn’t as clear. When you’re deciding if you want to try something new, it’s important to know what might help you and what could be harmful.

Your best bet is to stick with your treatment plan and to talk with your doctor before you start any new therapy. Together, you can decide what will help you feel your best.

Positive attitude. A positive outlook cannot cure your condition, but it can ease your stress and help you feel better.

Exercise. Some types, such as tai chi and yoga, can lower stress, help you relax, and increase your energy, balance, and flexibility. As with any fitness program, check with your doctor before you start.

Food. It’s important for people with MS to eat the right amounts of nutritious foods. Ask your doctor what kind of diet is right for you.

Massage. Many people with MS get regular massage therapy to help them relax and reduce stress and depression. There is no evidence that massage changes the course of the disease. It’s usually safe for people with MS to have a massage, but you should tell your therapist if you have osteoporosis. Talk to your doctor first.

Acupuncture. Some people report that acupuncture, a practice that places needles at specific points in the body, relieves symptoms like pain, muscle spasms, or bladder control problems. But scientific studies haven’t found for sure that it works for people with MS.

Evening primrose oil(linoleic acid). You can find linoleic acid in sunflower seeds and safflower oil. There is some evidence that taking it as a supplement may slightly improve MS symptoms.

Marijuana. Some people with MS say that smoking or ingesting it helps relieve muscle spasms and other MS-related symptoms. But scientists aren’t clear on how it works and who should use it. If you live in a state where medical marijuana is legal, check with your doctor.

Pulsed electromagnetic field therapy (PEMF). A recent study shows that pulsing magnetic fields through the body can help with the "pins and needles" feeling with MS.

Mind-body techniques. This might include moving meditation techniques like yoga or tai chi that exercise your body while calming your mind. Others, like imagery, hypnosis, relaxation, and biofeedback, concentrate more on calming or redirecting racing thoughts. In some people, these techniques seem to help with MS symptoms like tiredness, depression, and incontinence.

Reflexology. Here, a trained therapist, called a reflexologist, applies gentle pressure to the soles of your feet or sometimes your hands. The idea is that different points on your feet connect to different areas or your body, including your organs, and that the pressure can improve symptoms. Research is not robust, but many people with MS report that reflexology helps lessen pain and fatigue, and improves mood.

Cooling therapy. Heat can worsen the effects of thinned, damaged myelin sheaths that occur with multiple sclerosis. The result is that when you’re hot, nerve signals might not travel as fast, which could lead to worsened MS symptoms like tiredness, weak muscles, and vision problems. Exercise, fever, or even a hot cup of coffee can be enough to feel increased nerve effects for some with MS. Cooling therapy can involve all kinds of ways to lower body temperature like:

  • Drinking plenty of fluids
  • Avoiding heat, and seeking shade
  • A dip in the pool or spray from the garden hose
  • An umbrella to protect you from the sun
  • An icy towel around your neck

In addition, there are specialized vests, collars, and wrist bands filled with frozen gels and other materials that can help cool your body down. Many of these tools are available for free from organizations like the Multiple Sclerosis Association of America. But they may require a doctor’s prescription, and it’s important to talk to your doctor about how to use them safely and effectively.

Complementary therapy can be helpful in many cases, but some treatments don’t work and can be costly and even dangerous. The best way to stay safe is to learn about a product before you use it. Good things to find out:

  • What is the treatment?
  • What does it involve?
  • How does it work?
  • Are there any risks?
  • What are the side effects?
  • Is it effective? (Ask for evidence or proof!)
  • How much does it cost?

Once you answer these questions, think about your options and decide whether the benefits are greater than the risks.

If you do decide to try a complementary treatment, make sure your health and wallet are protected. Here are some tips.

Don’t take any claim at face value. Contact reliable organizations and discuss the therapy. Talk to others in a support group, your family, and your health care team. Although they may not always be supportive, they can help you make an educated decision.

Discuss the therapy with your doctor. Make sure they know what therapy you are considering so they can discuss possible side effects and how it may affect your current treatment. Your doctor can also give you information on other patients who may have tried the same therapy.

Talk to others who have used the therapy. Ask them what it was like. Don’t rely only on testimonials from the person or company offering the treatment. Track down your own references and get their opinions.

Research the provider's background. Contact the Better Business Bureau and thoroughly research the therapy provider, including how long they’ve been offering the service and what credentials they have.

Avoid providers who refuse or are reluctant to work with your doctor. Be sure that the person is willing to refer clients to a conventional doctor when necessary.

Make sure you know the total cost of the treatment up front. Most of these therapies are not covered by your insurance.

Promotion: Be cautious if products or providers are promoted through telemarketers, direct mailings, infomercials, ads disguised as valid news articles, or ads in the back of magazines.

Big claims: If a provider or product claims to be a "cure" for MS or makes other outrageous claims, be cautious.

Source: Be wary if the product is being offered through only one manufacturer.

Ingredients: Make sure all of the active ingredients are listed. Do not trust "secret formulas."

Testimonials: You’ll usually only hear from people who are satisfied with the product, so beware, especially if you see or hear "paid endorsement" with their comments. Also, watch for testimonials by people who are listed only by initials, locations, or first names.