New England School of Homeopathy

When the Diagnosis is Multiple Sclerosis: Homeopathy Offers Hope & Help


A version of this article first appeared in Homeopathy Today (September/October ’09), the monthly magazine of the National Center of Homeopathy. For more information on joining the NCH and subscribing to Homeopathy Today, click here.

College student with MS stays active & healthy, with ongoing support from her homeopath

by Amy Rothenberg, ND, DHANP

Just before starting her freshman year of college, Robin came to see me for the first time. This petite, muscular, stylishly-dressed young woman had recently received unsettling news about her health: a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis (MS), a potentially debilitating ­disease of the central nervous system.

In addition to numbness and weakness in her limbs, which Robin attributed to MS, she told me she’d been suffering with interstitial cystitis (painful bladder) and troubling tics in and around her eyes. These problems may well have been related to her MS, too, although she didn’t realize this at the time.

Robin and her mother were rightly anxious about the prospect of Robin going off to school half way across the country with such worrisome, unpredictable complaints. They wanted to do whatever they could to reduce her symptoms and prevent her condition from worsening. Despite this anxiety, Robin’s attitude about her illness seemed decidedly positive and her energy very cheerful and upbeat.

As Robin earnestly shared her story, looking often to her mother for answers and support, I learned that she had put a fair amount of stress on herself during high school. She had played a sport every season and had pushed herself academically. She was close and competitive with her two sisters, a year older and a year younger, and she planned to study pre-med in college.

Although I’d treated numerous patients with MS, I’d never had one as young as 18-year-old Robin. I welcomed the opportunity to create a relationship with this family and offer support to Robin over the next few decades. Each person with MS is different and we can’t guarantee that we can help; however, in my experience, homeopathy and natural medicine have much to offer the person with MS. And the sooner treatment is begun, the better is the likely outcome.

An inflammatory neurological disease

Multiple sclerosis is a disease of the brain and spinal cord. Most experts believe it has an autoimmune component, with the person’s immune system attacking the myelin – the protective sheath that insulates nerves and conducts nerve impulses or messages. Some researchers believe MS is stimulated by an environmental trigger or perhaps a virus. Although MS is not thought to be directly inherited, certain people do seem genetically more susceptible. In Robin’s family, for instance, there was a history of neurological problems, with both her paternal grandmother and aunt having MS, and her first cousin having epilepsy.

MS is usually diagnosed between the ages of 20 and 40, and occurs more often in women. Problems often show up first in the eyes, with blurred or double vision, flashes of light, or temporary blindness in one eye. Most people also experience numbness and tingling in body parts; muscles may lose strength, and coordination and balance may be affected. Some people experience generalized pain. Speech may be affected, as well as the ability to concentrate and focus; emotional issues such as anxiety and depression may ensue. If the illness progresses, incontinence and impaired walking may develop.

MS can range from relatively mild to completely disabling, and can be categorized by its symptoms, degree of disability, and progression. Most people have intermittent flare-ups interspersed with times of relative wellness when they fully or partially recover function. Others may start out with occasional flare-ups but then experience a decided worsening of symptoms over time. And for some, the illness progresses steadily rather than intermittently, with no let-up.

Treatment options

Many conventional medications are used for treating MS; most are aimed at reducing the number, severity, and duration of exacerbations and at maintaining adequate functioning. Beta interferon injections, one of the newer approaches, can decrease the frequency and severity of exacerbations and reduce progression of physical impairment, although it doesn’t work for everyone. A myriad of medications are also used for symptom relief such as muscle relaxants, sleep aids, anti-depressants, and anti-anxietals. At the time Robin came to me, she had just finished taking another round of antibiotics for her bladder trouble, but she was not taking any other medications.

Patients with MS come to homeopaths for many reasons. They may want to ­complement other approaches they are using. Sometimes other approaches or medications do not work, do not work well enough, or create intolerable side effects. Some come because they are looking for a holistic approach that will give them more balance in general, along with a lessening of symptoms.

Getting a good diagnosis

Patients may come in already diagnosed with MS, or they may be uncertain about their condition. It’s extremely important to help patients secure an accurate diagnosis by a neurologist who takes a careful history and exam along with laboratory and imaging tests. Because MS symptoms may shift or stop altogether for a time, definitive diagnoses are often hard to come by. Nonetheless, a proper diagnosis helps everyone understand the situation and the prognosis. It can also help inform our decisions about homeopathic dosing and other natural medicine approaches.

Homeopathic treatment

I use a constitutional homeopathic remedy for each of my MS patients to help bring their entire system into better balance. Although there is tremendous variability in symptoms from one MS patient to another, this is not a complicating factor for homeopaths; we are both interested in and good at individualizing treatments to patients. We don’t focus on the symptoms common to all MS patients; instead, we prescribe on the very things that make this patient unique. We don’t treat the MS symptoms per se, but rather a person with those symptoms with all their nuanced temperamental aspects, likes and dislikes, and long, usually complex personal and family history. By craftfully taking a full case and understanding the symptoms in the context of the patient’s overall experience of life, we can find specific remedies. The goal is the same as any MS treatment: to slow the ­illness’s progression and to reduce the number, severity, and duration of exacerbations. With homeopathic treatment, however, we also aim to improve overall energy, outlook, and attitude (if it needs improvement) and to help with general physical complaints such as those related to digestion, sleep, and regulation of body temperature.

Lifestyle factors

Stress takes a toll on all our systems and plays a role in most illnesses. But for people with MS, it is known to have an enormous effect exacerbating symptoms, bringing on attacks, and increasing the progression of the disease. So I spend extra time helping my MS patients troubleshoot the stressors in their lives. What are the things that cause the most stress? Are there ways to get rid of that stress or reduce it? If not, what regular things can they do to counter the effects?

For many, this is the greatest challenge; we are not merely seeking a short-term solution but rather a paradigm shift, a different way of being in the world. I encourage MS patients to seek out people and activities that are good for them, that release stress and worry, and that create feelings of connection, meaning, and calmness. I also help them create a toolkit of skills they can use during actual times of strong, unrelenting, or unavoidable stress.

Epidemiological evidence shows that those with diets high in animal fats have a higher likelihood of developing MS, so I recommend a healthy diet that is high in vegetables and fruits and low in saturated fat to my MS patients (see The Swank MS Diet on page 18). I also recommend fish oil as a terrific source of anti-inflammatory action and a regulator of immune function.

Robin’s path

Robin’s downturn in health began a year before our first meeting, starting with a bladder infection. Antibiotics appeared to help at first, but a week after finishing them, her bladder irritation and pain were back. In addition, she had a strange numbness in her left leg, and random cramps, especially in the thigh and calf. Even when her bladder finally calmed down a few months later, she continued to have curious and unexplained sensations on her left side that were intermittent and ongoing. Sometimes Robin’s left arm would feel somehow wrong, with strange temperature fluctuations. She also complained of weakness in the legs, a feeling that she could not depend on them to support her.

Robin’s eyes were another source of annoyance, with tics, twitching, blinking, and irritation. She and her mom had attributed this to dry eyes, but adding moisture with eye drops hadn’t helped. In fact, the problem seemed to be getting worse and was especially noticeable if Robin was under stress.

Robin was diagnosed with MS in her senior year of high school, after brain MRIs showed lesions consistent with MS. Because of the strong family history and familiarity with MS, her family was pretty sure this would be the diagnosis even before visiting the neurologist.

Robin reported a history of eczema and acne, although her skin looked mostly clear when I saw her. All her symptoms were worse in the warm weather; she felt best on a cool, crisp day.

In general, Robin described herself as nervous, anxious, and especially worried about her health. She felt like other kids her age had no idea what she was going through and couldn’t relate to her experiences. She was detail-oriented and conscientious about anything she took on. She felt better when she was occupied and busy, and felt worse if she had nothing to do. She was very close with her family and depended on them for strength and encouragement.

She was no longer having a lot of pain in her urinary tract, but she described a low-grade, constant discomfort and sensation of needing to urinate.

Choosing a remedy for Robin

When looking for a homeopathic remedy for Robin, I wanted one that would address her neurological symptoms, including the numbness and tingling (parasthesias) in her legs, and the tics and twitching around her eyes. I needed a remedy that would also address the tendency for bladder irritation, inflammation, pain, and urinary frequency. As importantly, I sought a medicine that would be appropriate for this acutely sensitive and anxious person, at this time of transition and worry.

The remedies that came through my repertorization of these symptoms were Arsenicum album, Nux vomica, Carsinosin, Agaricus, Cuprum, and Ignatia. From this short list, I immediately tossed out Nux vomica and Ignatia; they well covered the neurological complaints, but the person, as I understood her, did not need these remedies. She was less controlling and bossy, less snippy than someone requiring one of these remedies. After more than two decades in practice, I know certain remedies very well, in a “pattern recognition” way, and with Ignatia and Nux vomica, there is an overall different feeling to the patient. For a teenager like Robin, I would have expected to see more conflict, even obvious in the interview—either conflict with me or conflict with the parent. In contrast, Robin was very sweet, almost deferring to her mother for answers and certainly for support.

I also discarded Arsenicum album from consideration. Although Robin was very anxious and full of worry, which fit Arsenicum, she also had a kind of openness, earnestness, and sweetness that drew from me an acute desire to help her—which is very unlike someone needing Arsenicum! Also, if she had needed Arsenicum, I would have expected to see burning pain with at least some of Robin’s complaints, but I did not.

It was a tough choice among the Carsinosin (which covered her anxiety and worry, her desire to be cared for and supported), Cuprum (with all its neurological complaints, the cramping and spasms, which she had right along with her numbness), and Agaricus (another strong neurological remedy, with prominent twitches and spasms, along with anxiety and desire to be cared for).

With Cuprum, cramping is typically the overriding symptom, accompanied by tremendous restlessness; this did not seem to describe Robin’s symptoms that well. Cuprum patients also often have an underlying sense of guilt, which didn’t seem to fit either, so I decided against Cuprum.

In the end, I chose Agaricus. In patients needing this remedy, we often find a combination of sweetness and anxiety with any type of neurological complaint. Oftentimes, the person may have quite a serious health issue, yet they seem nonetheless cheerful and optimistic.

Pay attention to surprises

In this case, Robin’s thoroughly upbeat energy, even when discussing her MS diagnosis, definitely caught my attention. Whenever there is something in a patient that surprises us or catches our eye or does not seem to fit with the rest of their story, we should be on alert. We should take a little extra time with that symptom (or observation), making sure we understand it in the context of the whole person because it may well be a key indicator to the correct remedy.

In the homeopathic materia medica of Agaricus, we often see descriptions of hilarity or excitement or giggling as if in a drunken state; but what I have also seen in Agaricus patients is not so much an extreme manifestation of silliness or being spaced out, but rather a kind of upbeat nature, even an innocence in the face of a particularly difficult diagnosis or challenging set of life circumstances. Paul Herscu, my husband and partner in practice, has articulated this aspect of Agaricus materia medica eloquently in his teachings, and it has helped me to more often prescribe this remedy successfully.

Patients needing Agaricus seek help and consolation from their supporters and lean on family and friends quite a bit, as Robin did. The weakness in Robin’s legs and muscles, the numbness, and the random tics and twitching, especially around her eyes, all fit the remedy, as did her nagging bladder symptoms. So this whole picture of a person with neurological complaints, who has a kind of levity about her life situation along with a fair share of anxiety and conscientiousness, pointed me to Agaricus. I gave Robin one dose of Agaricus 30c.

De-stress for success

I also counseled Robin about handling the stress of her upcoming transitions, suggesting she find a mindfulness meditation or yoga class she liked, or some exercise she could commit to for regular de-stressing. I strongly advised she only take the minimal course work and not overload her academic or activity schedule. After four years of high school at breakneck speed, this was going to be a challenge for Robin, but I was very honest with her about the role stress plays in MS and about my belief that a more relaxed approach to life was going to serve her much better now and for years to come. I got her mother’s input on this topic and her promise of support. I also suggested fish oil supplements and that she investigate the Swank diet.

Down the road

When prescribing a homeopathic remedy for Robin, what results should we expect? I expected an improvement overall in energy level and spirits (although besides her anxiety, Robin was not suffering too much in this regard). I expected her neurological symptoms to decrease and her bladder issues to improve. And I wanted her to have no new neurological symptoms. With her type of MS, periods of exacerbation and amelioration are normal; so with homeopathic treatment, I wanted to see long periods of time with few or no symptoms – that is, months and years.

Great improvement

When Robin came to see me two months later, she happily told me she was doing much better. Most remarkable was that her bladder symptoms seemed to have “just disappeared” not long after taking the remedy; this was a notable change from the daily bladder discomfort she had had for months on end. Her neurological symptoms had also abated; she’d not had any numbness or funny feelings in her legs, and her anxiety was greatly reduced as well. This was a wonderful first report, but with Robin’s MS being of the intermittent variety, I knew it was possible this could have been happenstance; so I was more interested to see what would unfold over the rest of her first college year.

Two months later, Robin came back for a follow-up visit, saying that she continued to do well. She’d had an occasional twinge in her legs, but other than that, she was enjoying college life and heeding my advice about not overdoing.

One step back

At a follow-up visit five months later, Robin had just finished her freshman year and was wiped out. She felt exhausted, stressed, and anxious, and for the first time since our initial visit, she complained of numbness and tingling in the leg and the return of her eye symptoms. She’d had a good year overall, but I believe the stress of finals, some anxiety about summer plans, and the end-of-year transition took their toll on her. Even so, I was quite pleased that Robin had had such a good year, since her entire senior year in high school had been spent struggling with one health problem after another; it seemed to me that the Agaricus, along with her dietary changes and stress-reduction, had been helping.

That said, I was not surprised that some of her initial complaints had returned at this time. We all respond to stress in our patterned ways, and she’d just finished a tough year. Yet even though some of her neurological symptoms had returned, they did not seem to be as intense as during her high school years. I took this as a positive sign. I also noted that she seemed more animated and less dependent on her mom. I decided to give her another dose of Agaricus, but increased the strength to 200c.

Two steps forward

Soon afterwards, her leg and eye symptoms abated, becoming more like a shadow of the symptoms than the actual symptoms. In the following year, Robin had a number of garden-variety colds and upper respiratory infections but few neurological symptoms. She did well academically and socially and made some important changes in her career plans: she decided to study nursing instead of medicine, saying she didn’t want the promised stress of a longer academic program nor of being a doctor. She felt that a nurse could work a reduced weekly schedule, while still making a good living. I applauded her thinking on this, as it reflected a deeper understanding of her sensitivities and genetic inheritance, and it seemed like a healthy decision for her.

Long-term benefits

Over the ensuing three years, Robin has continued to do well, with minimal symptoms. Overall, her health seems to be much better than it was during her senior year of high school when I first saw her. She tends to show up in my office when she has a flare-up of her MS symptoms. Although the flare-ups aren’t typically as bad as before, they usually occur at a time of stress and worry and of course the symptoms add to her worry! And a dose of Agaricus, as needed, has helped her get back in balance. I assume at some point she will need the remedy Phosphorus or Carsinosin instead of Agaricus, but that time has not yet come. There is an art and science to homeopathy and the long-term follow-up on a patient such as this requires both. I do encourage Robin to be in touch with me as often as she feels she needs to and especially if she has any new or different symptoms (since it is often at that time that a new and different remedy could be indicated).

Homeopathy helps

With my other MS patients, some of whom I’ve been treating for more than 20 years, I see this same pattern and the same kind of help from homeopathy for most every patient. Of course, each patient is different, and for those who first come to us with more advanced MS, we do not expect these kinds of results. For those patients, we might be looking for more strength, less pain, less depression, better sleep, and better digestion. We wouldn’t necessarily expect someone in a wheelchair to be able to walk again or those with the most aggressive, progressive forms of MS to make a radical turnaround.

With younger, healthier people, however, especially those with the kind of MS that has remissions, I see a pattern with homeopathic treatment and the use of the Swank diet of years that might go by without exacerbation, or of troubling symptoms that come much less frequently, perhaps once a year or two instead of every few months. I do see big stresses setting people back, however, such as relationship break-ups, deaths, loss of income, etc. It would be wonderful to say that homeopathy can reverse that tendency, but this is not what I have seen; rather, homeopathy and other natural medicine can make the breaks in the illness much longer, can slow the progression, can offer strength, fortitude, and perhaps a way to spread out the pain.

Homeopathy is not a miracle cure of MS but rather a tool to help.

A worthy pursuit

That said, I do believe it is well worth the effort for both the patient with MS and their practitioner to choose homeopathic constitutional treatment. Homeopathy’s non-toxic, effective, deep-acting approach should be available as a treatment option to all who are challenged by this serious, chronic condition.