According to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, this condition — more commonly known simply as “MS” — is a sometimes extremely disabling disease that affects the brain and central nervous system and “disrupts the flow of information within the brain, and between the brain and body.” Unfortunately, there is no known cure.
MS is a disease that afflicts about half a million Americans and is categorized as a long-lasting, progressive condition that can affect not only the brain and spinal cord of patients, but also their optic nerves. Multiple sclerosis may cause suffers to lose vision, muscle control, balance, and several other body functions, including overall motor control and strength. MS affects women about twice as frequently as it does men; it most commonly strikes Caucasians of northern European ancestry.
Multiple sclerosis typically strikes those between the ages of 20 and 40; each week, about 200 people are diagnosed with the disease. It involves attacks called relapses, during which the condition gets considerably worse. Relapses may then be followed by recovery periods, during which symptoms abate. Some patients, however, never experience recovery periods.
How MS Works
MS is an autoimmune disorder that involves a confused immune system that, ironically, attacks its own body (very similarly to lupus). This results in a deterioration of the fatty myelin sheath that covers and protects the nerves (a process called demyelination) and helps nerve fibers transmit electrical impulses. The critical role of the myelin, combined with the destructive force of an immune system gone kamikaze, results in the sometimes highly debilitating symptoms of MS.
When the immune system attacks the myelin covering of critical nerves, it damages them in such a way that dense scars form. It is this process that is, technically, labeled sclerosis. These scars, or legions, can appear in many places throughout the central nervous system. Unfortunately, these sclerosis scars distort and often interrupt the electrical impulses that travel along the nerve on which they are found. This is one reason that so many MS patients are wheelchair bound; their nerves feature so many scars along their pathways that the impulses that would control and facilitate walking simply cannot do their job; the messenger cannot get through.
A wide variety of symptoms may result from MS, many of them severe and life altering. Because the onset symptoms of MS are similar to those of other diseases, those who suspect they may have the disease should always consult with a licensed physician.
Damage to the protective myelin covering of the nerves results in several negative symptoms, most notably an inability to walk, severe lack of energy, and depression. The potential symptoms of MS include:
- Difficulty walking or inability to walk
- Lack of energy
- Muscle weakness and spasms
- Numbness and tingling
- Blurred vision
- Loss of bladder or bowel control
- Sexual performance issues
- Difficulty focusing; memory issues
The most common symptoms of MS are quite severe and painful. About half of MS patients suffer from feelings of “pins and needles” in their extremities, including numbness, itching, burning, or stabbing pains. About 80 percent of MS sufferers experience bladder problems, typically manifested as an urgent need to urinate and frequent urination, including in the middle of the night (furthering sleep disturbances in such patients). Constipation is another common result of MS.
A combination of weakness, muscle spasms, balance issues, numb feet, and fatigue make it difficult or impossible for multiple sclerosis patients to walk or experience fluid motor skills. Some MS patients who medicate with cannabis choose a particular method of inhalation or ingestion simply because it is their only viable option given the highly degraded levels of their motor skills.
More than 80 percent of MS patients also report a feeling of being extremely tired, a symptom that often spikes in the afternoon and results in weakness, sluggish thoughts, and sleep. Unfortunately, this low energy is in no way the result of a patient’s activity level or the quality of their sleep, but fully a symptom of their disease.
Cannabis and MS
Cannabis can be highly effective in the treatment of MS for a variety of reasons. First, the two greatest medicinal powers of cannabis are as an analgesic (pain killer) and anti-inflammatory. Coincidentally, these are two of the principle symptoms of MS. Second, cannabis is an excellent way to treat the depression and sleep disturbance that commonly afflict a majority of sufferers.
The efficacy of cannabis for this disease is so great, in fact, that one 2002 study reported that roughly 43 percent of MS patients admit to using cannabis to treat their condition — regardless of its legality or the advice of their doctor. The group was comprised of 75 percent women and a quarter men. Of those who reported they had never used cannabis to treat the disease, 76 percent said that they would use it if it was legal where they lived.
“About half the patients who tried marijuana continued to use it regularly to relieve symptoms. They did so, they said, because it works. Nearly three quarters of current users said it worked to relieve spasms; more than half said it helped to relieve pain.”
Reported lead researcher Dr. M. S. Chong, a neurologist at King’s College Hospital in London where the study was performed, “I think it basically shows [that] a lot of our conventional drugs are not very good.”
A wide range of studies and research has revealed tremendous efficacy of cannabis for multiple sclerosis. The length limits of this article allow inclusion of only a few of these studies. Patients and readers are encouraged to further research how cannabis medicine can vastly improve the lives of MS sufferers.
A report published in 2003 in the journal Brain found that animal models experienced “significant neuroprotection” after consuming a synthetic cannabinoid. The study concluded that cannabis and the cannabinoids within may be helpful for not only management of the painful and debilitating symptoms of MS, but also for the core disease itself. “Cannabis may also slow the neurodegenerative processes that ultimately lead to chronic disability in multiple sclerosis and probably other disease,” concluded the researchers.
“These results suggest pro-inflammatory disease-modifying potential of cannabinoids [for] MS.”
A 2006 study of 167 multiple sclerosis patients published in the Multiple Sclerosis Journal found that cannabinoids extracted from cannabis were effective in relieving symptoms of pain, spasticity, and bladder incontinence. Not only was cannabis effective in relieving these MS symptoms, but it was able to do so for an extended period (more than a year) with no increase in dosage or sign of addiction.
Research conducted in 2007 revealed that the administration of cannabis extracts resulted in long-term reductions in neuropathic pain in MS patients. This was especially true for those who consumed cannabis over long periods of time. Researchers concluded that treatment with cannabinoids derived from marijuana resulted in a halt in the progression of the disease — akin to cancer going into remission.
“These results would be unlikely in patients suffering from a progressive disease like MS unless the cannabinoid therapy was halting its progression.”
In 2008, a study at the University of California at San Diego reported that “inhaled cannabis significantly reduced objective measures of pain intensity and spasticity in patients with MS in a placebo-controlled, randomized clinical trial.” The researchers concluded that marijuana, when smoked, was “superior to placebo in reducing spasticity and pain in patients with multiple sclerosis.” The study also noted that cannabis provided greater benefits than current mainstream pharmaceutical treatments and therapies.
A 2012 study published in the Journal of the Canadian Medical Association involving smoked cannabis revealed similar results. It concluded:
“Smoked cannabis was superior to placebo in symptom and pain reduction in patients with treatment-resistant spasticity.”
Another 2012 study conducted in Spain made similar conclusions, noting that administration of the synthetic cannabinoid agonist WIN55,512-2 to mice reduced the progress of the disease in subjects.
More Research Needed
Those who have performed any investigation into the efficacy of cannabis or cannabis concentrates for diseases like MS realize that much more research, including human trials conducted by reputable universities and research labs, needs to be performed. Unfortunately, the Schedule I status of cannabis is how conservative forces within the federal government have deemed the herb to have zero medical value and, in fact, to be a highly addictive and “dangerous” drug that carries many risks.
The scant studies noted in this article should be enough evidence to convince leaders and politicians that more research is necessary into the merits of cannabis for diseases like multiple sclerosis. If cannabinoids and terpenes can help patients who are suffering, all leaders have an obligation to investigate the value of further making available safe access to cannabis and cannabis products for sufferers in all parts of the country.
This post was originally published on October 27, 2015, it was updated on October 5, 2017.