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Q: Is fish oil helpful in treating multiple sclerosis?
A: Probably not, according to a study recently reported in the online journal Archives of Neurology (2012).
In this Norwegian study, 92 patients with relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis (MS) were treated with fish oil supplements containing the omega-3 fatty acids eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) or a "dummy pill" (placebo).
After the first six months, all patients were also given interferon injections, which are commonly used to treat MS.
The researchers in this study found that after seven months and 24 months of treatment, there were no differences in the number of brain lesions seen on MRI testing, functionality, fatigue or quality-of-life measurements between those taking the fish oil supplements or a placebo.
Overall, they concluded these fish oil supplements have no beneficial effects on MS disease activity.
Some smaller studies have suggested a potential benefit of fish oil in treating MS because of the anti-inflammatory and potential neuroprotective properties, but this larger and better-designed study did not.
MS affects about 400,000 people in the United States. There are four basic presentations of MS, the most common being the relapsing form.
The exact cause of MS is unknown, but what is known is the myelin sheath, an insulating cover surrounding nerve axons, is damaged by an immune action leading to damage to the brain and spinal cord.
This damage, which can be seen on MRI scans as a lesion, leads to visual disturbances, muscle weakness, coordination difficulties, and memory and cognition problems.
It most commonly occurs in people ages 20 to 40, and affects women two to three times more often than men. Common complaints include weakness, fatigue, pain, bladder and bowel problems, as well as balance, visual and other sensory disturbances. There is no cure for MS.
The strategies for treating MS include: reducing the number of attacks, reducing the number of lesions observed in MRI scans, slowing the progression of disability and improving the speed of recovery.
Richard P. Hoffmann, Pharm.D., has been a pharmacist for more than 40 years. Send questions to him at 2960 E. Coventry Court, Hernando, FL 34442.