Stephen Barrett, M.D.
Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a degenerative disease of the brain, spinal cord, and optic (eye) nerves, in which patches of inflammation and scarring interfere with the function of the brain, spinal cord, and/or the nerves to the eyes. The cause of MS is unknown, but the most attractive theory is that it is an immune reaction to the nervous system. Its symptoms include muscular weakness, loss of coordination, and difficulty with speech and vision. It occurs chiefly in young adults and, like arthritis, can have a very variable course. Some people have only a single attack. Others have only a few attacks in a lifetime, recover from these, and experience no disability except during attacks. Others have frequent attacks from which they don't recover completely, but which cause only partial disability. Still others have a slow progression of disability over a period of 10 to 25 years, which eventually leaves them helpless. When attacks occur, symptoms may come and go suddenly and may even vary from hour to hour.
MS's extreme variability makes it a perfect disease for quacks. The only way to know whether a treatment is effective is to follow a large number of patients for years to see whether those who receive the treatment do better than those who do not. Quacks don't bother with this kind of testing, however. They simply claim credit whenever anyone who consults them improves. And since the majority of attacks are followed by complete or partial recovery, persuasive quacks can acquire patients who swear by whatever they recommend.
The Therapeutic Claims Committee of the International Federation of Multiple Sclerosis Societies has analyzed more than a hundred alleged treatments and published the results in a book called Therapeutic Claims in Multiple Sclerosis, which is revised every few years . Each analysis includes a description of the method, the proponents' rationale, a scientific evaluation, estimate of risks and/or costs, and the authors' conclusion. The methods are then classified according to plausibility, extent of study, risk, and cost.
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