Multiple sclerosis, also known as MS, is a devastating autoimmune disorder that affects the brain and spinal cord. The symptoms of multiple sclerosis are wide-ranging based on the person, but they can include spasticity, fatigue, stomach issues, pain, cognitive impairment, emotional changes and more. About 400,000 Americans suffer from MS, and they’re usually prescribed a cocktail of immunosuppressants such as corticosteroids along with other medications for pain, sleep problems and emotional disorders.
The efficacy of cannabis on symptoms of multiple sclerosis has been widely studied. In 2005, a study was published in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry that looked at the efficacy and long-term safety of using cannabis to help patients with MS. The study, which included 630 subjects, compared the effects of oral tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and a placebo over a 15-week period.
Patients who took the active THC experienced improvements in spasticity and saw a decrease in pain. It’s important to note, however, that because the side effects of the THC could be detected, this wasn’t a blind study.
That said, researchers did invite participants to continue using THC in a double-blinded follow-up study, which subsequently found that there was some improvement in spasticity symptoms. This, according to researchers, suggests a potential neuroprotective effect with cannabis.
Cannabis is now actively being used in countries outside of the United States to help reduce the symptoms of multiple sclerosis. Sativex, which was created by GW Pharmaceuticals based out of the U.K., has helped many people reduce their MS-related symptoms. Sativex, which is made of cannabis extracts, is actively being prescribed in 15 countries and has been approved for use in 12 others.
Sativex was tested in a 2012 study that was published in the European Journal of Neurology. The study, which was double-blind and placebo-controlled, was conducted with 144 participants receiving the cannabis extract Sativex and 135 receiving a placebo. The study focused on muscle stiffness: Patients with muscle stiffness symptoms were recorded before and 12 weeks after treatment.
Patients who’d received the Sativex experienced a two-fold improvement in muscle stiffness in association with improvements in pain, spasms and sleep quality. These patients also experienced only a few minor side effects.
The American Academy of Neurology released A Summary of Evidence Based Guidelines: Complementary and Alternative Medicine in MS that stated, “Oral cannabis extract and synthetic THC (tetrahydrocannabinol — a major active component of cannabis) are probably effective for reducing patient-reported symptoms spasticity and pain, but not MS-related tremor or spasticity measured by tests administered by the physician. For these cannabis derivatives, the most commonly reported side effects were dizziness, drowsiness, difficulty concentrating and memory disturbance.”
The American Academy of Neurology guidelines indicate that cannabis can be effective at addressing some of the symptoms of multiple sclerosis. This is an important step towards gaining recognition from the medical community for cannabis as an effective tool for the treatment of MS.
Contrary to what the Academy says, however, a 2012 clinical trial from the University of California San Diego School of Medicine found that MS patients who took THC saw a one-third reduction in spasticity along with a reduction in muscle pain.
More studies are being conducted to see how cannabis can help people who suffer from multiple sclerosis. Thorsten Rudroff, a researcher from Colorado State University secured crowdfunding for research on multiple sclerosis and cannabis in 2016. Rudroff set up a study with MS patients already using cannabis in Colorado and compared them to a group of MS patients who weren’t currently using medical cannabis.
Rudroff measured physical ability and monitored muscle activity with the use of PET and CT scans. The first is an observational study that looked at 139 MS patients who used cannabis. The patients featured in the study experienced fewer signs of neuro-disability and were able to reduce or completely stop using other medications to fight multiple sclerosis when using cannabis.
The Huffington Post interviewed Rudroff about his observational study. When asked what the most striking results from the study were, he responded, “Our experience here is that these patients reported less pain, less muscle spasticity compared to other patients with multiple sclerosis.
Also, we looked at some physical functions, and they performed better. These patients were stronger in the legs, they were less fatiguable, and they also showed better balance. These are some of the preliminary findings we’ve had so far, but of course we need more subjects to validate this and to make sure that this is really an effect of cannabis. I have a lot of interactions with these patients, and they have reduced other medications, they have less pain, they are more physically active. It’s very exciting for me.”
Rudroff also believes that most of the benefits that patients are receiving come from cannabidiol (CBD)—CBD doesn’t have the same side effects that can come with consuming THC, such as pyschoactivity. Rudroff hopes that these basic, preliminary studies will help provide him with an opportunity to apply for and receive grants to then conduct a clinical study on the effects of cannabis on patients with multiple sclerosis.
With all of the evidence, both from formal studies and anecdotal observations, it’s clear that cannabis may truly be able to help people who are suffering from multiple sclerosis. Cannabis can help with many symptoms of MS including pain, sleep deprivation, emotional changes like anxiety and depression, and spasticity.
Cannabis is already providing relief to patients in 15 countries across the world with the help Sativex. That said, MS patients in the United States are still limited to receiving help from cannabis based on what state they reside in. Cannabis may be a major factor in helping MS patients maintain a higher quality of life, one that’s free from a heavy rotation of prescription medications and their harsh side effects.