What We Know About Cannabis and Multiple Sclerosis

According to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, close to 1 million American adults have received an MS diagnosis at some point in their life. This relatively common neurological condition causes pain and loss of motor control, among other symptoms that drastically impact the quality of life of people living with the disease. Promising anecdotal evidence and scientific research alike show that cannabis can be a viable way to manage pain and attain restful sleep in MS patients. Here's what we know so far about the relationship between MS and cannabis.

 

What is Multiple Sclerosis?

Multiple Sclerosis (MS) is a central nervous system condition that causes the body's immune system to attack myelin, which coats nerve cells. As the immune system attacks these cells, patients often experience muscle fatigue or weakness and chronic pain, neuropathy, uncomfortable sensations, numbness, fatigue, and degraded motor function. Patients living with MS may also experience depression or difficulty maintaining focus and concentration. While no cure has been developed for MS, there are treatment options available and lifestyle changes like diet and exercise that can help reduce the severity of symptoms. 

 

How can Cannabis help MS patients?

Two common symptoms associated with MS include insomnia and chronic pain, two symptoms cannabis excels at alleviating. MS is also a qualifying condition for a medical cannabis card in several states, including in Florida, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia.


In a 2019 study published in Multiple Sclerosis and Related Disorders, 38% of patients living with MS also reported consistent cannabis consumers. These respondents said they primarily consumed cannabis to manage chronic pain and insomnia. These respondents stated that, on average, they experienced a more than 60% improvement in their symptoms when consuming cannabis. Researchers on the study noted that more patients living with MS appear to be "reporting use of highly efficacious products with minimal side-effects."


As anecdotal evidence piles up, researchers are aiming at collecting some empirical evidence as well.  Unfortunately, research into cannabis and MS remains relatively limited, and the demand for more information is significant. That same 2019 study found that 90% of respondents, including non-cannabis consumers, desired more research on the topic. Further, 74% indicated they would consider using cannabis to help lessen symptoms associated with MS.

 

Emerging research into Cannabis and MS 

Initial research into cannabis and MS, although in its nascent stage, offers promise. Most of the research covering cannabis and MS involves scientific reviews of studies addressing the symptoms of the condition, rather than the condition itself.


One 2003 study examined how cannabinoids influenced symptoms associated with MS versus a placebo group. In the study, 630 patients with stable MS and muscle spasticity were given either an oral cannabis extract, delta-9 THC or a placebo. Over the course of 15 weeks, researchers measured muscle spasticity in patients and found that more than 60% in both the extract and THC groups reported improvement, while only 46% in the placebo group reported improvement. 


The researchers concluded that cannabinoids didn't have a significantly beneficial effect on muscle spasticity when measuring against the Ashworth scale, but noted "objective improvement in mobility and patients' opinion of an improvement in pain suggests cannabinoids might be clinically useful." In other words, cannabinoids didn't appear to treat the MS, but they were effective in improving patient experience and general quality of life. 


Muscle Spasticity and related pain reduction

A 2014 review, for example, noted that consumption of an oral cannabis extract (such as Rick Simpson Oil) appears effective for reducing muscle spasticity and associated pain in patients living with MS. However, the same review found that cannabis appears ineffective for reducing bladder control issues that some with MS experience. The conclusion: Cannabis isn't a panacea, but can alleviate certain troubling and life-interrupting symptoms associated with MS.


Similarly, a 2009 review of six studies found that there was a pattern of reduced spasticity in patients who self-reported results after consuming cannabis. Particularly, the review notes, extracts containing both THC and CBD appeared most effective. Across these studies, patients largely reported an improvement in symptoms post-treatment, as well.


The clinical usefulness suggested by the researchers involves managing the symptoms associated with MS, which should not be misconstrued as a treatment plan for MS. Always discuss with your doctor whether consuming cannabis as part of your routine is right for you.

 

Cannabis to manage neuropathy-induced MS

Other research offers insight into how cannabis might also apply to people living with MS. Some of these studies do not focus specifically on MS, but instead hone in on neuropathic pain, which is experienced by 25% of MS patients. For example, one 2018 research review stated that "the evidence appears to support the safety and efficacy of short-term, low-dose cannabis vaporization and oral mucosal delivery for treatment of neuropathic pain." Indeed, there is a litany of scientific evidence for cannabis's potential to alleviate neuropathic pain.

Patients living with MS often experience neuropathic pain as the immune system continues to attack the myelin coating nerve cells. So, while this research was not conducted with MS in mind, it remains relevant to people living with MS. 

 

Cannabis to help with Insomnia

Similarly, there is some evidence that when consumed in low doses, cannabis could help promote sleep. Nearly 40 million Americans live with insomnia, and many people managing the symptoms of MS are among them. One 2008 study suggests cannabis could act as a sleep aid in lower doses, specifically when consuming balanced products with a roughly 1:1 THC to CBD ratio. Again, while not directly an MS study, the results yielded by this research could help people with MS who are having difficulty sleeping due to their MS symptoms keeping me awake. 

 

Incorporating Cannabis into your routine

For many cannabis consumers living with MS, the anecdotal evidence is all they need to help manage the MS symptoms that disrupt everyday life. However, it is important to understand the limitations of cannabis products as well, and to speak with your doctor about whether including cannabis in your routine makes sense for you. 

Cannabis may not be a cure for MS, but it still can offer relief from the toughest symptoms associated with the condition. And though symptoms often vary from person to person, the wide variety of cannabis products offers options as unique as each individual. From whole plant extracts like RSO to traditional flower, concentrates, and edibles, cannabis products are varied enough to give patients choice in the way they consume and find relief. Most products contain THC heavy and ratio strain options to further help you tailor your experience to your needs.