Multiple Sclerosis (MS) can be debilitating for its sufferers, but scientific evidence suggests cannabis could be helpful in managing the symptoms.
MS is a lifelong disease with no cure. However, great strides in science have made life easier for some patients living with the relapsing-remitting MS (RRMS). About 85 percent of all MS patients are first diagnosed with this type of MS, characterized by clearly defined relapses of increased disease activity and worsening symptoms followed by remissions when the disease doesn’t progress.
Patients with MS live with pain, muscle spasms, stiffness, and insomnia, among other bothersome symptoms. Dealing with these symptoms when you have MS can be exhausting, making it impossible to manage your daily life and enjoy activities. While there are medications indicated to treat the symptoms of MS, they come with a risk of side effects and they don’t work for all patients.
Nearly 1 million people have MS in the United States, and new studies show many of those patients have considered turning to medical marijuana for help with their condition. A recent survey showed that more than half MS patients interviewed either used cannabis for MS or said they’d consider using it if it were legal where they live.
Some evidence suggests that medical marijuana or its active compounds, called cannabinoids, may ease the symptoms of MS.
Multiple sclerosis is not contagious and is not considered a hereditary disorder, but researchers believe there may be a genetic predisposition to developing the disease. It’s estimated that 15 percent of people who have MS also have one or more family members who also suffer from it.
If you’re living in a cold climate, you may be more likely to get MS. MS cases become more prevalent the further away from the equator people live. In southern U.S. states, the rate of MS is between 57 and 78 cases per 100,000 people. The rate is twice as high in northern states above the 37th parallel.
MS appears to disproportionately affect people of Northern European descent. This particular group has the highest risk of developing MS, no matter where they live. The lowest risk groups for MS are Native Americans, Africans, and Asians.
Another interesting statistic about multiple sclerosis is that it affects women more than men. The National MS Society estimates the disease is two to three times more common in women than men. A 2017 report observed that one-fifth of European women surveyed received misdiagnoses before eventually receiving an MS diagnosis. According to the study, the average woman was found to go through about five visits with a healthcare provider over the course of six months before reaching a diagnosis.
A 2012 study out of the United Kingdom gave 279 people with MS either an oral extract of THC-containing cannabis or a placebo. After 12 weeks of observation, the researchers found that people in the cannabis group experienced almost twice as much relief from muscle stiffness as those in the placebo group.
In 2014, the American Academy of Neurology (AAN) released a study called “Summary of evidence-based guideline: Complementary and alternative medicine in multiple sclerosis.” A panel of medical experts evaluated all published research studies to create the guideline, which included studies of several forms of cannabis and its derivatives. The panel determined that oral cannabis extracts and synthetic THC are probably effective for reducing patient-reported symptoms of spasticity and pain, but not for measurable MS-related tremor or spasticity.
The AAN also evaluated the drug Sativex, an oral cannabis spray developed by GW Pharmaceuticals. They found Sativex is probably effective for improving patient-reported symptoms of spasticity, pain and urinary frequency, but not physician-measured bladder incontinence.
Another study from 2018 attempted to measure the “real world” experience of MS patients who use medical marijuana. About 77 percent of those who were studied said that medical marijuana was helpful in managing their symptoms, especially spasticity and pain. Another 70 percent felt their quality of life improved with medical marijuana. Even more encouraging, some patients were able to reduce other pharmaceuticals they were using to manage symptoms.
One important note about MS is that, while cannabis can improve symptoms for many patients, it doesn’t cure MS, nor is it considered a disease modifying therapy (DMT). “Medical cannabis will not influence the course of your MS and is used for symptom management only,” says MS patient columnist Ardra Shephard for Healthline. While DMTs aren’t a cure for the disease, they can significantly reduce how many relapses someone with MS has and how serious they are.
There’s not a single MS test to determine whether or not you have it. To receive a diagnosis, a doctor needs to collect your medical history and perform a neurological examination and a series of other tests.
If you’ve been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and are considering using cannabis to manage your symptoms, reach out to one of our trusted Duber Medical doctors today.
Author: Gabrielle Dion Visca
Gabrielle has been writing and editing professionally for the medical and wellness industries for more than 20 years. She’s held positions with The Journal of Pediatrics, Livestrong, The Cincinnati Enquirer, and Patient Pop. She currently writes articles about medical marijuana for Duber Medical, and is the founder of the Ohio cannabis journalism non-profit, MedicateOH.