by Lisa Baird & Stef Cordes
Canada has the highest rate of multiple sclerosis (MS) in the world; an estimated 100,000 Canadians live with the disease. MS is classified as an autoimmune disease of the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord). The disease attacks myelin, the protective sheath around the nerves, causing inflammation and often damaging the myelin. Myelin is necessary for the transmission of nerve impulses, so if damage to it is minor, nerve impulses are slightly interrupted. But if damage is severe and if scar tissue replaces the myelin, nerve impulses may be completely disrupted and the nerves themselves may be damaged. Common symptoms include:
- Chronic pain
- Trouble walking, and/or “drop foot”
- Deep fatigue
- Muscle weakness and spasms
- Numbness and tingling
- Problems with focus and memory
If you read the research on multiple sclerosis and acupuncture, some studies say that acupuncture is helpful, some say that it isn’t, and others say that the results are inconclusive and that it needs more study.
But we place more importance on what our patients have told us. What we and our patients have found is that acupuncture can help MS patients with every symptom on that list. We haven’t seen acupuncture cure anyone of MS, but we have seen many people enjoy significant increase in their quality of life.
How does the acupuncture help?
We think that acupuncture helps with fatigue for a few different reasons. Acupuncture is often incredibly relaxing. The most common side-effects of acupuncture are reduced stress and improved sleep at night. Most people are delighted by this but people who have interrupted sleep from chronic pain tend to be especially pleased. Acupuncture is also very effective at shifting our nervous systems from a fight or flight state into the rest and digest state, which is the mode we need to be in for our bodies to repair. Living with constant pain signals in our bodies can keep us in a chronically adrenalised state; unfortunately this is both exhausting and counterproductive. Acupuncture can help ease us out of that tense, hyperalert state and into a state of deep relaxation. Many of us who have experience with chronic pain have noticed that the chronic pain hurts more when we’re tense. If we are able to deeply relax, then it hurts less and we suffer less, even if the pain is still there.. But relaxing is sometimes really hard to do! We need help to get there.
We also know that acupuncture is an excellent tool for bringing down inflammation—all kinds of inflammation, from acute injuries to angry red skin rashes to chronic infections to autoimmune disease-related inflammation. Again, we suspect that this has something to do with acupuncture’s ability to shift us into rest-and-digest mode, the state in which we do repair.
We treat many patients who struggle with numbness in various parts of their bodies, and have found acupuncture to be very effective (sometimes incredibly so) with reducing or eliminating numbness.
It’s no mystery why people living with chronic illness often become depressed. Depression is often a symptom that we treat alongside our patients’ main complaints. We know that acupuncture often results in endorphins being released, which make us feel good. Acupuncture can often help us lift out of a low mood. We have also noticed that mental health will often improve when sleep is better, pain and stress are lower, and we feel like we have some control over our health.
Isolation as a factor in our physical and mental health. Chronic illness can be horribly isolating, and isolation can have a real impact on our physical and mental health. We mammals are not built to struggle through things alone. One of the reasons people love coming to our clinic is because it interrupts isolation.
What does a course of treatment look like for someone with MS?
This depends on the individual situation. We do a detailed intake with each patient and each patient gets treatment tailored for them. Many patients come to us when they’re in a flare-up and their symptoms are quite challenging. In these cases, we recommend a few treatments close together (say, 2 to 4 times in a single week) which significantly decreases their symptoms. Some people don’t come again for treatment for another six months, or a year or two, when they’ve flared up again. Other people come for a few treatments close together and then come in regularly after that for weekly, biweekly or monthly “tune-ups”. Or they come in when they’re going through a stressful time, because they know that stress is likely to cause a flare-up and they’re using acupuncture to prevent that.
We like it when people form their own relationship with acupuncture and know when they need to come in. We know that our patients are the experts on their own bodies; we’re just here to make acupuncture as available as possible. If you have questions about how acupuncture can help you with MS symptoms, please get in touch.