Multiple Sclerosis: Be Cautious About Complementary and Alternative Medicine

You and your family members are likely to be bombarded with sound-bites and advertising regarding various types of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM). In your eagerness to get a grip on your MS and feel better, you may be persuaded to try a little bit of this and a little bit of that, without carefully considering the pros and cons.

Here are some suggestions to help you become a savvier consumer:

  • Be cautiously skeptical: Take every claim with a grain of salt until you see solid evidence from a controlled clinical trial.

  • Always ask the following questions, and don't give up until you have the answers: What does the treatment involve? How and why is it supposed to work? How effective is it? What are the risks? How much does it cost?

  • Talk with your doctor and pharmacist about any CAM intervention that you're considering: These professionals are your best sources of information about possible risks and interactions with your prescribed medications. When you don't mention the CAM you're using, it's like asking your doctor to treat your MS with a blindfold on.

  • Watch out for the following red flags:

    • Advertisements that rely heavily on testimonials or anecdotal evidence rather than objective data on efficacy, safety, and cost

    • Marketing hype that makes exaggerated claims of "miraculous" results for a variety of different diseases

    • Promises of relief from lots of different symptoms (products that claim to fix everything probably don't fix much of anything)

    • Claims to strengthen your immune system (The MS immune system is already overactive, so additional boosts may be harmful.)

    • Products with secret ingredients

    • An antimedical emphasis that berates conventional medicine

    • Expensive, highly invasive treatments with no supporting data or scientific rationale

  • Don't trip over the following misconceptions:

    • Natural doesn't necessarily mean safe. Even though some natural compounds are safe and beneficial, others can be toxic.

    • Even supplements that are beneficial can contain chemicals that are potentially harmful.

    • More isn't necessarily better. As with prescription medications, higher supplement doses aren't necessarily more effective than lower doses, and the additive effects of multiple supplements may actually be harmful.

The world of CAM can be as confusing as it is alluring. Check out these other resources for more of the information you need to be an informed consumer of CAM products and services:

Books:

  • Alternative Medicine and Multiple Sclerosis, second edition, by Allen C. Bowling (Demos Health)

  • PDR for Nutritional Supplements (Thomson Healthcare)

  • PDR for Herbal Medicines, third edition (Thomson Healthcare)

Websites:

  • Oregon Center for Complementary and Alternative Medication in Neurological Disorders: This collaboration between the conventional and alternative medicine communities is committed to CAM research in neurological disorders.

  • Quackwatch: Quackwatch is a nonprofit corporation that was founded by Dr. Stephen Barrett, whose purpose is to combat health-related frauds, myths, fads, and fallacies.

Agencies:

  • Federal Trade Commission, Consumer Response Center, CRC-240, Washington, DC 20580; phone: 877-FTC-HELP (877-382-4357). The Federal Trade Commission investigates false advertising.

  • National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, P.O. Box 7923, Gaithersburg, MD 20898; phone: 888-644-6226; TTY: 866-464-3615; e-mail: info@nccam.nih.gov. The Center, which is one of the 27 institutes and centers that make up the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, is the federal government's lead agency for scientific research on CAM.

  • National Council Against Health Fraud, 119 Foster Street, Peabody, MA 01960; phone: 978-532-9383. The National Council Against Health Fraud is a private nonprofit, voluntary health agency that focuses on health misinformation, fraud, and quackery.

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