Chelation therapy is a proven treatment for heavy metal poisoning. Some people also claim that chelation therapy may be useful to treat heart conditions, Alzheimer’s disease, and autism spectrum disorder (ASD). However, these claims lack substantial scientific evidence.
In this article, we explore how chelation therapy works, its proven and unproven benefits, and the potential risks and cost of undergoing it.
Chelation therapy is a medical treatment for people experiencing heavy metal poisoning. Heavy metal poisoning occurs when the soft tissues of the body absorb toxic amounts of metal.
Chelation therapy involves substances known as chelators. These substances bind to heavy metals and transport them out of the body. This process is known as chelation.
Heavy metal poisoning
According to a 2019 review, heavy metal poisoning is a common health problem as a result of industrial, agricultural, and sewage waste. It may also occur due to food consumption or the use of certain medications.
The level of heavy metal toxicity is dependent on the duration of exposure, how much a person absorbed, the way in which absorption occurred, the type of metal, and the age of the person. Some examples of the more common metals that may cause heavy metal poisoning include:
Symptoms of heavy metal poisoning may vary depending on the metal. However, some of the general symptoms that a person may experience include:
Chelation therapy involves the administration of drugs called chelators into the human body, typically through an intravenous (IV) drip.
Some examples of chelating medications are:
- dimercaprol (BAL)
- edetate calcium disodium
The chelators bind to the metal molecules in the bloodstream. They then filter out through the kidneys and leave the body in the urine.
A doctor should only ever prescribe chelators in cases of metal poisoning. These medications have serious side effects and may sometimes bind to traces of metal that are essential in the human body.
The use of chelation therapy has scientifically proven benefits in cases of metal toxicity. However, some researchers and healthcare professionals use this treatment for other conditions in which science is yet to prove its benefits.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) state that they do not approve any over-the-counter (OTC) chelation medications. All chelation therapy that meets FDA approval requires a prescription, as a person must use it under the supervision of a medical professional.
Additionally, the FDA say that they do not approve chelation therapy for cardiovascular conditions or ASD.
Below, we examine the proven and unproven claims relating to the use of chelation therapy for treating certain conditions.
The National Capital Poison Center emphasize that chelation therapy is only necessary in cases of metal poisoning. An older review supports this view and highlights chelators as the preferred treatment for metal toxicity.
Autism spectrum disorder
Older research implies that autistic children contain higher levels of toxic metals in their bodies than children who are not autistic. For this reason, some people believe that chelation therapy may be useful in this instance to reduce the level of these metals.
However, a systematic review looking at chelation therapy for autistic people states that no evidence from clinical trials supports chelation therapy as an effective treatment for reducing ASD symptoms.
There is also a reported case of a child dying after receiving chelation therapy to treat their symptoms of ASD.
There was also a slight reduction in the risk of future heart problems in people without diabetes.
However, the American College of Cardiology note that these results were surprising, as previous studies did not demonstrate the same positive results. They speculate that the results in these instances may be due to the healthful lifestyle that is necessary alongside chelation therapy.
Alzheimer’s disease may be the result of a buildup of proteins, beta-amyloid, and tau around the brain cells. Some people believe that chelation therapy may help with Alzheimer’s disease by dissolving the beta-amyloid.
A 2017 discussion regarding the use of chelation therapy for Alzheimer’s disease highlights that there is not a lot of evidence to support any clinical benefits.
Individuals living with Parkinson’s disease may have higher levels of iron in the brain. Due to this, some people believe that chelation therapy may help relieve some of the symptoms of the condition.
Currently, there is not enough clinical evidence to either support or discredit the use of chelation therapy for Parkinson’s disease.
Chelation therapy carries a lot of risks and side effects, and it can even be fatal. For this reason, a person should only undergo treatment under medical supervision and if they have metal poisoning, as it has proven benefits for treating this condition.
Although there is minor evidence that it may help people with cardiovascular conditions, the risks outweigh any potential benefits. This fact is particularly important as many other, safer treatments are available for these conditions.
Some of the common side effects that a person may experience during chelation therapy include:
- fever and chills
- nausea and vomiting
More serious side effects of chelation therapy may include:
- drop in blood pressure
- respiratory failure
- low blood calcium (hypocalcemia)
- irregular heartbeat
- severe allergic reactions
- severe hypersensitivity
- kidney damage
- liver damage
- loss of vitamins and nutrients
Chelation therapy often involves a course of treatment a few times a week over several months. For that reason, the total cost of treatment may be more than $5,000. It is also worth noting that health insurance does not typically cover chelation therapy.
As chelation therapy requires a prescription, a person should discuss any potential providers with their doctor.
If a person is experiencing metal poisoning, it is likely that they will require chelation therapy. The chelators work by binding to the heavy metals in the bloodstream. The kidneys then filter out the heavy metals and subsequently excrete them through urination.
Due to the risks and side effects of chelation therapy, the only condition for which a person should receive the treatment is metal toxicity.