What Is Chelation Therapy?

A doctor performing chelation therapy.

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Chelation therapy is a treatment used in alternative medicine. It's based on the process of chelation, in which chemicals are used to remove heavy metals and other substances from the body. Although chelation was originally used to treat conditions like lead poisoning, chelation therapy is now claimed to protect against heart disease and other major health problems.

In chelation therapy, a chemical substance is introduced into the body through an intravenous (IV) drip. Once it enters the bloodstream, the chemical substance binds to certain molecules (such as metals or minerals) and then removes those molecules from the body. According to proponents of chelation therapy, eliminating excess or toxic metals or minerals from the body can enhance health and fight disease.

The most common form of chelation therapy uses a synthetic amino acid called ethylene diamine tetra-acetic acid (EDTA). EDTA is known to remove substances such as lead, iron, copper, and calcium from the blood.

It should be noted that the only FDA-approved chelating agents are available solely by prescription. These agents are approved for use only in specific circumstances, such as in the case of lead poisoning or iron overload.

Uses for Chelation Therapy

Chelation therapy is said to aid in the treatment of atherosclerosis (i.e., hardening of the arteries). Since calcium deposits are found in artery-clogging plaques, it's thought that using chelation therapy to remove calcium deposits can restore healthy blood flow in the arteries.

Some proponents suggest that EDTA can act as an antioxidant and protect against the damaging effects of chronic inflammation. To that end, chelation therapy is also used to treat osteoarthritis and other inflammation-related conditions.

In addition, chelation therapy is sometimes used to treat the following health issues:

  • Alzheimer's disease 
  • Angina
  • High blood pressure
  • High cholesterol
  • Multiple sclerosis 
  • Peripheral artery disease
  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Band Keratopathy

Chelation therapy is also claimed to improve memory, treat diabetes-related complications, and promote recovery from stroke.

The Health Benefits of Chelation Therapy

Although chelation is known to be effective in the treatment of heavy metal poisoning, scientific support for chelation therapy's effects against other health conditions is very limited.

For a report published in the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews in 2002, researchers analyzed five previously published studies testing the effects of EDTA-based chelation therapy in patients with atherosclerosis-related cardiovascular disease. Their analysis found insufficient evidence for chelation therapy's effectiveness in improving clinical outcomes for such patients.

In a research review published in BMC Cardiovascular Disorders in 2005, scientists looked at seven previously published studies that focused on the use of EDTA-based chelation therapy in the treatment of cardiovascular disease. They determined that use of chelation therapy in the treatment of cardiovascular disease isn't supported by the best available scientific evidence and that using this therapy as a substitute for standard care "may result in causing indirect harm to the patient."

Furthermore, a report published in the American Heart Journal in 2000 concluded that chelation therapy "should now be considered obsolete" as a treatment for heart disease, given its potential to cause severe adverse effects.

However, there's some evidence that chelation therapy may be beneficial to people who have suffered a heart attack. In a National Institutes of Health-funded study published in Current Opinion in Cardiology in 2014, for instance, researchers evaluated the effectiveness and safety of EDTA-based chelation therapy in 1,708 people who had experienced a heart attack.

Results of this study revealed that chelation therapy was associated with a significant reduction in the risk of issues such as stroke and hospitalization for angina. Chelation therapy appeared to have an even greater benefit in people with diabetes, the study's authors point out. They also note that chelation therapy may improve health in heart attack patients by reducing oxidative stress.

Side Effects & Safety Concerns

Side effects commonly associated with chelation therapy include diarrhea, headache, high blood pressure, loose stools, low blood sugar, nausea, poor appetite, skin rash, and vomiting. In some cases, chelation therapy may trigger serious side effects such as kidney damage and abnormally low blood levels of calcium. There's also some concern that chelation therapy could remove calcium from healthy bones and other tissues. Children, pregnant women, and people with heart or kidney failure should not receive chelation therapy.

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Article Sources

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  • Ernst E. "Chelation therapy for coronary heart disease: An overview of all clinical investigations." Am Heart J. 2000 Jul;140(1):139-41.
  • Seely DM, Wu P, Mills EJ. "EDTA chelation therapy for cardiovascular disease: a systematic review." BMC Cardiovasc Disord. 2005 Nov 1;5:32.
  • U.S. Food and Drug Administration. "Questions and Answers on Unapproved Chelation Products." February 2016.
  • Villarruz MV, Dans A, Tan F. "Chelation therapy for atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease." Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2002;(4):CD002785.