Alternative medicine

Poll: Alternative medicine is popular among people with MS

A survey shows that many people with multiple sclerosis use alternative treatments to treat their condition, with 39% saying they have used mind-body therapies, such as mindfulness and massage. (Getty Images)

A new survey of more than 1,000 people with multiple sclerosis reveals that an overwhelming majority use complementary and alternative medicine, many of which use cannabis.

Researchers at Oregon Health & Science University surveyed residents of Oregon and southwest Washington in 2018. results were recently published in the journal Multiple sclerosis and related disorders.

The survey found that patients are nine times more likely to talk with their neurologist about using alternative therapies than patients in a similar survey conducted in 2001, a sign of wider societal acceptance of treatments beyond conventional drugs. In the years since the first investigation, several conventional drugs have become available to manage MS-related disease activity.

Even so, patients seem to be more inclined to use alternatives such as dietary supplements, despite limited evidence of their effectiveness.

Elizabeth Silbermann, MD

Elizabeth Silbermann, MD

“Use of these alternative supplements has remained high even though we have all these other treatment modalities,” the lead author said. Elizabeth Silbermann, MDfellow in neurology at the OHSU School of Medicine.

Main conclusions:

  • 81% have used dietary supplements such as vitamins, minerals and herbs, up from 65% in the same survey conducted nearly two decades ago.
  • 39% have used mind-body therapies such as mindfulness and massage, up from 14% in the previous survey.
  • 81% used exercise to help manage their symptoms – an increase from 67% in 2001.

Cannabis use was common among respondents to the new survey, with about 30% reporting having used it in various forms. Although cannabis remains an illegal substance under federal law, voters have legalized it in recent years in Oregon and Washington.

Even though the traditional uses of alternative therapies such as botanical supplements date back hundreds of years, scientific research has generally been limited. Silbermann said it’s a positive sign that patients are more open to discussing their use of alternatives with their neurologist because managing interactions with conventional medications is important.

“There has been a culture shift between patients and providers over the past 20 years,” Silbermann said. “It’s less paternalistic and more of a partnership.”

More research is needed so neurologists can tell patients what helps and doesn’t help their MS, she said. About 85% of respondents reported having a mild or moderate disability.

Rebecca Spain MD, MSPH

Rebecca Spain MD, MSPH

Main author Rebecca Spain, MD, MSPH, an associate professor of neurology at OHSU’s School of Medicine, said she’s pleased the survey reflects patients’ comfort and openness to sharing their full experience with their physicians. She said that may be partly due to OHSU’s well-established reputation as an academic health center that supports patient use of complementary and alternative medicine, or CAM.

“Opening up for patients to share the big picture of what they are taking CAM has allowed us to better understand and effectively care for our MS patients,” Spain said.

This research was supported by the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, award R-1705-27,628, and the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences of the National Institutes of Health, through grant number UL1TR002369