Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a chronic neurological autoimmune disease that affects an estimated 2.5 million people globally and accounts for about $85 billion a year in both direct and indirect healthcare costs in the United States alone. Typical MS symptoms and clinical presentations can include sensory loss affecting sight (optic nerve), weakness (motor nerves/brain), facial muscle weakness (facial cranial nerve), ataxia (cerebellum, motor cortex, spinal cord), vertigo (inner ear, vestibular branch of the cranial nerve), pain, fatigue, bladder/bowel control, and psychological disorders. Because the condition is not fully understood and has been linked to both genetic and environmental causes, there’s no one-size-fits-all treatment available to MS patients. Conventional pharmaceutical approaches may have a limited effect, and these immunomodulating or immunosuppressing drugs can lead to adverse allergic reactions that affect the skin and other organs. This has led many patients and researchers to explore alternative and complementary treatment approaches to help slow the progression of the disease and improve a patient’s quality of life.
An October 2022 systematic review looked at ten previously published randomized-control trials to investigate the effects of manual therapies in reducing symptoms in MS patients. The authors concluded that Swedish massage, acupressure, and reflexology interventions lasting 10-30 treatments spread over 4-10 weeks were effective for improving fatigue, pain, spasticity, psychological state, and physical function.
In addition to hands-on treatment, there have been several studies exploring the role of diet and specific nutrients in MS management. Dietary approaches such as the Mediterranean diet, ketogenic diet, and the dietary approaches to stop hypertension (DASH) diet have been linked to better cognitive health and greater preservation of the thalamus (an area of the brain that relays motor and sensory data to the cerebral cortex). In particular, omega-3 fatty acid supplementation may reduce the severity of some MS symptoms and oleic acid—a fatty acid found in cooking oils, meats, cheese, nuts, seeds, eggs, pasta, milk, avocados, and olives—may stimulate the production of the regulatory T cells that help keep the immune system from attacking the central nervous system.
Staying active may also benefit MS patients. One study found that using an activity tracker helped lower the risk for relapsing-remitting MS symptoms and improved the participants’ ability to maintain normal activities, including working. There’s also research to suggest the obesity, depression, and poor sleep can have a detrimental effect on MS patients, so maintaining a healthy weight and good mental health and sleep hygiene are also important.
As with many health conditions, early detection and treatment is second only to prevention. In the case of MS, a review of medical records of more than 85,000 adults revealed that those who would eventually develop MS were more likely to make doctor visits for issues such as urinary problems, visual disturbances, abnormal skin sensations, impaired movement, and dizziness in the time preceding their diagnosis. Recognizing these clusters of symptoms can help doctors identify patients who may be at increased risk for MS earlier in the course of the disease when treatment may be more effective.