Before I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS), when I was growing up, people who used acupuncture, acupressure, Eastern medicine, and any other non-Western methods to treat their illnesses were considered kooks. The image we saw was of a daffy, wispy white woman, who was not quite all there. She was shown using crystals and incense and spouting vague pseudo-medical jargon. 

Society told us that anything other than white coat medicine was ineffective and a joke. What better way to do that than through sexism and prejudice? The terms alternative or complementary medicine were decades away from being used. 

I am familiar with alternative and home remedies. I came from a family that used that form of medicine. My mom is a Wyoming-born 70s, black semi-hippie. She came to her alternative remedies out of need. Growing up black in Cheyenne meant being treated like a third-class citizen. Medical care was not only expensive, but it was also difficult to get because her family is African-American.

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Simply put, marginalized people had to look at different means to maintain their health. 

For lots of black people, Vick’s VapoRub was the answer to most anything. Stuffy nose? Out came the Vick’s. Coming out of an asthma attack? Out came the Vick’s. Looking like I might possibly be getting sick? Vick’s. Vick’s and castor oil, along with Pepto-Bismol, could cure almost anything. When I disclosed my MS diagnosis to my mom, I swear there was a whiff of Vick’s in the air. 

Some may not associate these advertised over-the-counter products as alternative medicines, but they are when used in place of conventional remedies. Now, 40 years later, there is rising acceptance of complementary and alternative medicine in the Western medical field.  

The terms complementary and alternative medicine are often used interchangeably. This is incorrect According to the National Institutes of Health, complementary and alternative medicine are actually different: 

  • If a non-mainstream approach is used together with conventional medicine, it’s considered “complementary.” 
  • If a non-mainstream approach is used in place of conventional medicine, it’s considered “alternative.”  

For most people, this distinction is irrelevant. Any type of solution which does not come from the traditional doctor’s office is labeled one or the other. What is important is that patients are looking elsewhere for relief. The challenge is how to respect the patient’s perspective while providing conventional treatment. 

Read more about treatment options for multiple sclerosis

People living with MS are constantly looking for answers and cures. Over time, some alternatives have become complementary. Recommended therapies that reduce stress are at the top of the list. Yoga and tai chi are examples of Eastern methods, which are folded into exercise recommendations and promoted as decreasing stress. Medical professionals are comfortable recommending these methods precisely because they fit neatly into Western medicine.

Food is another example of what was considered alternative that has now become complementary. Eating well and as clean as possible is an important part of achieving better health results. It is not only a recommendation but can be a central part of an overall MS treatment plan. 

With a chronic illness like MS, there is plenty of room for people to find alternatives to the FDA-approved disease-modifying therapies (DMTs). Cannabis is quickly becoming a popular way to deal with MS symptoms such as spasticity and general pain. MS patients, like myself, who live in a state with legal access are fortunate enough to have access to cannabis products without the fear of incarceration. Pulsed electromagnetic field therapy (PEMF) is another alternative method gaining traction in a few medical circles. 

An MS patient who is using or considering using an alternative treatment should not be seen as unintelligent or gullible. This is a person who is considering any and all methods to help overcome their disease. What is available to people living with MS is not enough.

There is no cure, so we are left to figure out how to make our lives better on a day-to-day basis. We are searching for treatments that are effective for us individually. What modern Western medicine lacks we hope to find in alternative ways. 

The key for healthcare providers is to see alternative medicines as an open door instead of a brick wall. This is the time to find out more about why the MS patient is using a particular therapy. The answer can be enlightening and an essential part of helping the patient toward wellness.

If a patient is adamant about using alternative medicine or treatment it is incumbent upon their medical team to figure out how to incorporate that into the patient standard treatment. Why? Because it is better to know what the patient is up to rather than then to admonish or criticize. 

This does not apply if there is a very real danger to the patient. The point is to bring an open mind to the table. After all, yesterday’s treatment labeled as goofy is today’s accepted complementary medicine.