The American Academy of Neurology, an association of neurologists and neuroscientists dedicated to promoting high-quality care for people with nervous system disorders, has released a guideline on the use of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) in MS. The guideline was created by a panel of medical experts who evaluated all available published research studies. Through a comprehensive process, the panel carefully assessed the outcomes of relevant research studies, and also whether study findings could be generalized to the larger population of people with MS, and whether any safety concerns should be considered by physicians and patients who might use these treatments.
The widespread use of CAM by people with MS highlights the unmet need for more research and better therapies that will help people with MS live their best lives. Summaries of the guideline are available for patients and for clinicians.
Specific Guideline Information
Among studies of several forms of marijuana and its derivatives that were evaluated by the panel, the guideline reports that evidence suggests that:
Oral cannabis extract and synthetic THC (tetrahydrocannabinol, a major active component of marijuana) are effective for reducing patient-reported spasticity and pain, but not MS-related tremor or spasticity measured by tests administered by the physician;
Sativex oral spray (GW Pharmaceuticals) is effective for improving patient-reported spasticity, pain, and urinary frequency, but not bladder incontinence, MS-related tremor or spasticity measured by tests administered by the physician;
Smoked marijuana research studies have not produced enough evidence to assess its safety or effectiveness for treating MS symptoms including spasticity, pain, balance, posture, and cognition.
Oral cannabis extract, THC and Sativex are not currently approved by the FDA for use by people with MS. The guideline notes that, as with any therapy, along with potential benefits come potential side effects, and for these cannabis derivatives the most commonly reported side effects were dizziness, drowsiness, difficulty concentrating and memory disturbance.
The guideline also points out that the long-term safety of marijuana use for MS symptom management is not yet known.
Read about the National MS Society’s position statement and more about the use of marijuana for MS symptoms.
Among other CAM therapy studies in MS evaluated by the panel, the available research evidence suggested that:
ginkgo biloba is ineffective for improving cognitive function, but might reduce fatigue;
magnetic therapy might reduce fatigue;
reflexology might help ease unusual skin sensations such as tingling, but there is insufficient evidence to evaluate its potential for treating pain, fatigue, and other symptoms;
the use of omega-3 fatty acids with low-fat diet to reduce relapses or disability, or improving quality of life is not supported by current evidence.
The guideline includes a table of all of the CAM therapies that were evaluated. For many of these, the panel concluded that there was not enough evidence from research studies to advise as to their effectiveness in treating MS or its symptoms. The guideline also indicates that there is little known about how CAM therapies interact in the body with each other or with disease-modifying therapies that individuals may be taking. The effects and side effects reported from non-MS studies were not evaluated.
While many people with MS report that they experience benefits from CAM therapies, this guideline confirms the need for more research to demonstrate the effectiveness of these treatment strategies. The National MS Society is committed to ensuring that no opportunity is wasted in our mission to stop MS progression, restore function lost to MS, and end MS forever so that people with MS can live their best lives. We have supported, and will continue to support, CAM research and will continue to advocate for additional government funding for CAM research.
Read more about complementary and alternative medicine in MS.