Worldwide, more than 2.3 million people are living with multiple sclerosis (M.S.). Can using cannabis help manage their symptoms?
Canada is one of the countries with the highest proportion of people who have M.S. Canada’s MS Society reports that one in every 385 Canadians lives with this condition.
For patients who don’t respond well to conventional methods for addressing M.S. symptoms, using cannabis seems like it may have a place as part of a roster of available treatment options.
What is multiple sclerosis?
Multiple sclerosis is a progressive neurological autoimmune disease that gradually damages the nerves of the spinal cord and brain, along with the entire immune system. Scientists and medical experts still can’t say with certainty what causes M.S., though some factors have been advanced as potential causes.
For patients who don’t respond well to conventional methods for addressing M.S. symptoms, using cannabis seems like it may have a place as part of a roster of available treatment options. FILIPPO MONTEFORTE/AFP/Getty Images
So, what is known about M.S.? It is an autoimmune disease in which the immune system attacks myelin—a fatty substance that envelops nerve cells and fibers, allowing the exchange of information. When there isn’t enough myelin, the brain finds it difficult to communicate with the rest of the body. This deficiency gradually serves to deteriorate the nerve cells and, eventually, damage them permanently.
What causes multiple sclerosis?
Although there are no conclusions, one thought is that certain genetic and environmental factors play a role in developing M.S. Let’s start with genetics. If a person’s parents (or his or her siblings) have M.S., there’s a slightly higher chance the individual will be diagnosed, too. Another thought is that people with M.S. are born with a genetic predisposition to react to some, as yet unidentified, environmental agents, which trigger this negative autoimmune response.
Multiple sclerosis qualifies the affected individual for getting access to medical cannabis in some U.S. states; in Canada, patients are eligible for becoming medical cannabis users. FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images
When it comes to environmental factors, there are a number of theories—none of which has been confirmed. For example, it seems people from countries farther from the equator tend to be diagnosed with M.S. more frequently than people from countries closer to the equator. One explanation for this is a deficiency in vitamin D, meaning people living near the equator are exposed to more sunny days, and because of this, synthesize more vitamin D. That means people living in countries farther from the equator need to ingest vitamin D through food, something that is not so easily accomplished.
Also, some have suggested that certain viral and bacterial infections can cause or trigger M.S., particularly because some viruses are known to cause inflammation and demyelination (that is, breakdown of the myelin coating).
What are the symptoms of M.S.?
Multiple sclerosis is a disease that affects different individuals differently. That said, some of the early signs have been reported as including the following:
- walking, balance and coordination issues;
- muscle spasms, pain, fatigue and weakness;
- numbness and tingling;
- problems with vision;
- cognitive issues; and
- bladder issues.
Oftentimes, treatment options and therapies include use of corticosteroids or plasma exchange, which only serve to slow down the progression of M.S. However, not all patients respond well enough or at all.
Scientific research on cannabis and M.S.
Multiple sclerosis qualifies the affected individual for getting access to medical cannabis in some U.S. states; in Canada, patients are eligible for becoming medical cannabis users.
Using cannabis to treat general symptoms of M.S.
In 2005, a group of researchers was looking into the effectiveness and long-term safety of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) for M.S. During a 15-week period, 630 patients with a stable form of M.S. were given THC or placebo. At the end of the treatment, patients who were taking THC reported around twice as much relief from general symptoms than those given placebo.
Using cannabis to treat M.S.-related muscle spasms
Muscle spasticity and stiffness are one of the most prevalent issues that M.S. patients deal with. Some patients report having gained muscle control with cannabis use. Published in 2014, findings from a systematic review of 34 studies on cannabis and M.S., conducted over a 50-year period, concluded that oral cannabis extracts are very effective in relieving muscle spasms, and possibly effective in treating other symptoms.
Using cannabis to treat M.S.-related bladder issues
In a 2010 study, M.S. patients were given Sativex (whole-plant formulation with 1:1 ratio of THC to CBD), and placebo for 10 weeks. Sativex had an impact on overactive bladder in patients with M.S., providing evidence of improvement in symptoms associated with bladder dysfunction.
Using cannabis to treat M.S.-related pain
Here’s one interesting research tidbit about smoking cannabis and its effects on pain caused by M.S. Thirty M.S. patients were randomly given either a joint or an identical cigarette once a day for three days. After an 11-day break, participants switched groups.
Researchers reported the treatment with cannabis significantly lessened pain, and was superior to placebo in symptom reduction. Though study authors emphasize more research is needed, the findings indicate cannabis may provide relief from certain persistent symptoms.
M.S. often has several accompanying conditions
Depression, seizures and lack of appetite are some of the more common symptoms among those with M.S. Each of these accompanying conditions has been shown to have been treated or lessened by using cannabis with either THC or CBD, or whole-plant formulations.
Best cannabis strains for M.S.
For those interested in exploring if cannabis can help diminish M.S.-related symptoms, the following strains may be of interest. Since strains are frequently sold under different names, if you live in Canada, consider using Strainblazer to find strains currently sold by producers licensed under the Access to Cannabis for Medical Purposes Act.
A very popular sativa-dominant strain for both medical and recreational users, Sour Diesel is known for its ability to address pain and fatigue. Relaxing for both the body and mind, it still provides enough energy to get the consumer through the day.
One of the best-known indica strains, Critical Mass is recommended for night-time use for one simple reason: It makes users sleepy and sluggish. Some medical cannabis users have reported the strain is very effective when it comes to managing pain.
Nebula II CBD
This sativa-dominant strain with a 1:1 THC to CBD ratio is a good choice for daytime use: It offers focus and energy, but also is reported to work well to reduce pain, depression and fatigue.
AK-47 is known for being a potent hybrid strain, mostly recommended for experienced users. It is said to be very effective for diminishing pain and muscle spasms.
A reported favourite among some medical consumers, Strawberry Cough is said to boost energy levels and confidence, while helping relieve symptoms such as pain, spasms and fatigue.