Beta-interferon is just the latest treatment for MS sufferers. Nick Walker looks at the bewildering array of therapies
The Multiple Sclerosis Therapy Centre is a squat brick building on the outskirts of London. My diagnosis came at the beginning of this year after months of tests. There is no known cause, my neurologist told me, no prognosis and no cure.

MS involves the breaking down of the sheaths which cover the nerves. No one knows why, but there are theories: environmental factors, food allergies, mercury in fillings, viral, genetic. And so on.

In one corner of the centre, a notice board is pinned with newspaper cuttings. Reports of new drugs and new research:Copolymer 1. Combination therapy. Gene therapy. Nerve conduction enhancers. Anti-viral agents. Non-specific immunosuppressants. "Could maybe lead to a cure" in five, 10 ... 20 years.

No cure. Not yet. But for every theory there is a therapy, and for every therapy a theory, stretching from the stock of traditional neurology to the outer fringes of alternative medicine. Hyperbaric oxygen treatment. Diets high in polyunsaturates. Reflexology. Yoga. Chinese medicine. Cranberry juice. Vegetable oil. Vegetable oil and cranberry juice. A glass every morning.

According to Complementary Medicine: New Approaches to Good Practice, published by the British Medical Association in 1993: " 'Complementary' therapies are those which can work alongside, and in conjunction with, orthodox medical treatment.'Alternative' therapies could be seen as those given in place of orthodox medical treatment." But when it comes to Multiple Sclerosis, complementary seems a misnomer. Complement what? What alternative?

"I have a slight problem with the word 'alternative'," says the therapy centre's Lynn Hurst. "It implies that conventional medicine has something to offer. It's not really like that with MS. It's more about managing the symptoms."

Judy Graham, in Multiple Sclerosis: A Self-Help Guide, says this of non-traditional medicine, or 'holistic medicine' as she describes therapies from applied kinesiology to aromatherapy: "The mistake some patients make is to view a particular alternative therapy as just a technique. If you want any kind of holistic therapy to be helpful, you have to be an active participant in the healing process, and not just a passive recipient."

Traditional medicine suggested that I eat well, try evening primrose oil and exercise regularly. Beta-interferon, which helps regulate the immune system and is the latest drug hope, was not mentioned. But I left my diagnosis with the comfort that it wasn't the Grim Reaper standing at my shoulder, clip board in hand. And I had an explanation as to why I would wake up, my hands cold as ice, why fatigue would crash over me like a wave and five minutes later be gone, why one morning last Christmas I woke up with legs as weak as water, and then, a day later, found they were fine. Why all of this had disappeared and then come back.

Multiple Sclerosis Therapy Centres are charities that work in tandem with the MS Society and offer three main types of therapy at some 50 centres: hyperbaric oxygen treatment (breathing pure oxygen under pressure), nutritional advice (studies have shown the incidence of MS is related to eating saturated fats such as in dairy produce) and physiotherapy to help limb control and improve strength. "We don't make any claims that what we provide is a cure," explains Hurst. "It's all part of the jigsaw. All these things feed in."

Hurst continues: "While you're doing one therapy, stick to it. You're never going to know what has an effect if you chop and change." The MS Society offers a further caveat: "Each person's MS is different. You have to work with your doctor. They are better versed in how the disease has affected you than anyone else. You need an objective person to monitor your progress, whether you're trying a new drug or using a less orthodox therapy."

The holistic argument seems cyclical: this therapy could change your life - but you have to change your life before it will work. I'm worried that I won't muster the proper degree of belief. I could hardly bear the failure to be mine, thank you. (How quickly would you swap your entire lifestyle in the hope that your fingers no longer feel cold in the morning?) Spurred on by theMS Society, I have booked another appointment with my neurologist. Having thought about my options, I now realise we have a lot to talk about.

The MS Society: 0171 371 8000. Federation of MS Therapy Centres: 01234 325 781.

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