What is Chelation Therapy?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Chelation therapy is type of medical therapy, most often used in traditional medicine to treat various types of toxic metal or substance poisoning. The practice began during World War I when soldiers exposed to arsenic gas compounds were given injections of a substance called dimercaprol. This mostly ineffective treatment bonded the dimercaprol to the arsenic particles in the blood stream, allowing them to be removed by the liver. Severe side effects to dimercaprol were often present.

Cilantro is sometimes used as a chelation agent.
Cilantro is sometimes used as a chelation agent.

By World War II, the issue of requiring chelation therapy again emerged, especially since lead paint was used regularly to repaint ships. Doctors at the time replaced dimercaprol with a substance that would bond with lead. Yet the dimercaprol, also called BAL, was still the only chelation therapy for arsenic poisoning. Gradually though, scientists evolved a new chemical, Dimercaptosuccinic acid (DMSA), which had far fewer side effects. Today DMSA is usually the best treatment for the removal of various toxins and metals, and most often used in Western medicine.

Checking for lead in the body is a common hematology test for children.
Checking for lead in the body is a common hematology test for children.

Chelation therapy can be a godsend when accidental poisoning occurs, such as a child consuming a number of vitamin pills with iron in them, or when lead poisoning is found. It has few side effects, though the person must be watched for developing ultra-low calcium levels, called hypocalcaemia, which can lead to heart attack. DMSA removes other important metals besides the toxic ones, so blood chemistry levels are checked frequently as the therapy continues.

Home paints sold after 1978 are required to be free of lead.
Home paints sold after 1978 are required to be free of lead.

Generally chelation therapy is administered through an intravenous line, though some types of chelators (binding agents) can be taken orally. EDTA, a common chelator may be given rectally rather than orally, which may reduce risk of vomiting. Depending upon the amount of toxins ingested, the therapy may need to be repeated, and hospital stay may be indicated when severe poisoning has occurred.

A hospital stay may be necessary if chelation therapy needs to be repeated.
A hospital stay may be necessary if chelation therapy needs to be repeated.

There are a few types of chelation therapy that are considered experimental or alternative. For instance, some alternative medicines suggest using cilantro as a chelation agent to routinely remove “toxins” from blood. There is little scientific evidence that this therapy prolongs life or promotes health. An interesting application of chelation therapy under study is using it to help reduce hardening of the arteries (atherosclerosis).

Chelation therapy may help remove the plaque buildup of arteries.
Chelation therapy may help remove the plaque buildup of arteries.

There is some suggestion that chelation therapy might help remove the plaque buildup of arteries and promote greater heart health, but some prominent organizations have claimed that it provides no benefit. Such therapy is often offered by alternative or complementary medical practitioners and is not used by standard cardiologists. Organizations like the American Medical Association, the American Heart Association and the US Food and Drug Administration all decry this method and suggest that use of oral chelators as a “viable” method of reducing atherosclerosis is a questionable practice at best, and calls into question the ethics of people who produce these chelators or advocate their use.

EDTA, a common chelator, may be given rectally, which may reduce the risk of vomiting.
EDTA, a common chelator, may be given rectally, which may reduce the risk of vomiting.
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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Discussion Comments

bookworm

Some oral chelation products, such as EDTA, have not been tested say in comparison with aspirin to prove their effectiveness in heart attack prevention. It is best to follow doctors recommendations.

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