Alternative Systems of Medicine
Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: April 2023
Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) includes alternative systems of medicine that come from non-Western traditions and cultures. CAM methods include acupuncture, traditional Chinese medicine, and tai chi, as well as alternative Western methods like homeopathy.
Acupuncture and traditional Chinese medicine
Acupuncture is part of the larger system of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), which combines a variety of nutritional, herbal, and mind-body approaches. Acupuncture is an ancient treatment approach developed in China 5,000 years ago. It is one of the major components of TCM and has become very popular in the West. It involves the placement of thin needles at certain acupuncture points on the body.
Currently, there are too few studies of both TCM and acupuncture specifically in people with multiple sclerosis (MS) to make any conclusions about the effectiveness of these approaches as either symptomatic or disease-modifying treatments for MS. Studies of acupuncture in other medical conditions have shown that it is effective in alleviating pain and reducing nausea and vomiting. These results have been confirmed by a U.S. National Institutes of Health panel reviewing clinical evidence for acupuncture.
So, acupuncture may have some benefit for people with MS as a symptomatic treatment for pain. The safety of acupuncture has been demonstrated when the intervention is performed by an experienced clinician.
Since TCM often involves the use of herbal treatment, there is the potential that specific herbs will activate the immune system, which may exacerbate MS. Chinese herbs that may have immune-stimulating effects include Asian ginseng, certain mushrooms (reishi and maitake), and astragalus. These herbs may also interact negatively with other medications, and patients are encouraged to talk to their doctor about all medications and supplements they are taking.
Qigong (which means breath work/technique in Mandarin Chinese: qi [or chi] translates as vital energy) is another modality that is part of TCM. It involves energy-based healing practices derived from Taoism (a school of Chinese philosophy) and Chinese medical theories. The approach is based on the idea that vital energy moves through a network of energy pathways in the body, and that breath or breathing can be managed to optimize this vital energy and maintain good health and stamina.
Evidence for use of qigong as a treatment is strongest for hypertension, but the modality is also being studied for its benefits in other health conditions that may be of relevance to people with MS, including pain, fatigue, and stress. At present, there is only theoretical support for the use of qigong as a symptomatic or disease-modifying treatment in MS.
Tai chi is a Chinese martial art that has been practiced for centuries for both self-defense and health benefit. It involves a system of movements and postures designed to approach the mind and body in a holistic manner as an interconnected system.
Tai chi is believed to provide health benefits for the body, including increased strength, flexibility, coordination, and improved posture, and the mind, including reduction in stress, improvement in memory and concentration, and decrease in anxiety. It has been evaluated in a limited number of studies in people with MS and results from these studies suggest that Tai Chi may be effective in alleviating common MS symptoms, including spasticity and ambulatory problems, and beneficial in terms of improved social and emotional functioning.
Larger, more systematic, studies are needed to confirm this benefit. Tai Chi is generally safe. However, as a physical discipline involving movement, stretching, and holding of positions or postures, it may increase risk for falling and may cause strain to muscles and joints.
Homeopathy was developed in the early 19th century by a German doctor (Samuel Hahnemann) who believed that substances which caused certain symptoms (such as nausea and vomiting), when given in extremely diluted solutions would also cure those symptoms by provoking a defense response. Homeopathic treatments are derived from a wide variety of sources, including plants, minerals, venoms, and even pharmaceuticals.
At present, there is only theoretical support for the use of homeopathy as a disease-modifying treatment in MS. Solid evidence from clinical studies is also lacking for homeopathy as a treatment for symptoms that are common in people with MS, such as fatigue, insomnia, or pain.
Before beginning treatment for MS, tell your doctor about all your health conditions and any other drugs, vitamins, or supplements you are taking. This includes over-the-counter drugs.