Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a serious and lifelong condition that causes a range of symptoms, which can become debilitating.
Almost 1 million adults in the U.S. may have MS, according to the National Multiple Slcerosis Society. The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke suggest a lower figure, of 250,000–350,000, but they add that it is difficult to know exactly how many people it affects.
Marijuana, which is also known as cannabis, is now legal in many areas of the United States. The National Multiple Sclerosis Society support the use of medical marijuana for people with MS in some instances and where it is lawful.
However, the drug does have side effects, and it may not be suitable for everyone. In addition, more research is necessary before the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) can approve its use for MS.
Benefits of marijuana for MS
Marijuana may help treat the symptoms of MS.
The chemicals in marijuana have different effects on the body, some of which can be medicinal.
Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is one of the primary chemicals in marijuana, and it has psychoactive properties that cause the "high" of the drug. Conversely, a compound called cannabidiol (CBD) does not have psychoactive effects. There are many other components of marijuana, but most research to date has focused on these two.
THC may increase appetite, reduce nausea, and improve muscle control issues.
Epidiolex, the only cannabis-derived drug that the FDA have approved, contains almost no THC and is almost 100% CBD.
May help muscle control
In a study in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery & Psychiatry, researchers gave people with MS either an oral extract of marijuana or a placebo for 12 weeks. The researchers found that people in the marijuana group experienced almost twice as much relief from muscle stiffness.
A large 2011 study involved 572 people with MS who took either oral marijuana extract or a placebo. The authors concluded that marijuana extract is an effective treatment for spasticity in people with MS. Spasticity is the continuous contraction of certain muscles, and it is a common symptom of MS.
In 2014, a systematic review found strong evidence to support the use of marijuana-based treatments for MS-related muscle problems.
Can relieve pain
A 2012 trial looked at the effect of smoking marijuana on the symptoms of MS. The researchers found that smoking marijuana led to more pain reduction than a placebo.
In another 2012 study, people with MS who took oral marijuana extract had a more significant reduction in pain than those who received a placebo.
Could help with bladder problems
MS can cause bladder problems, which marijuana may help manage.
Scientists conducted a trial to investigate the use of oral marijuana extract for bladder dysfunction.
They gave the participants either the extract or a placebo for 10 weeks.
The results were not statistically significant, but they indicated that marijuana might improve the symptoms of bladder problems in people with MS.
A 2014 systematic review also found evidence to suggest that oral marijuana extract is likely to be effective for treating these issues.
Marijuana may not be useful for other symptoms of MS. These include cognitive symptoms, such as difficulty thinking. A study in the journal Neurology found that people with MS who smoked marijuana achieved poor results on cognitive tests in comparison with those who did not use the drug.
Marijuana is also unlikely to be beneficial for reducing tremors, another primary symptom of MS. A systematic review found that the existing evidence did not support the use of marijuana to reduce tremors in people with MS. However, it is still possible that marijuana might be useful for the treatment of tremors in people with conditions other than MS.
Guidelines from the American Academy of Neurology for people with MS state that oral marijuana extracts, synthetic THC, and oral marijuana sprays are likely to be effective for treating some MS symptoms. They note that it is unclear whether smoking marijuana may also be beneficial.
However, the long-term safety of treatment with this drug needs more research. Any treatment containing THC may have some psychoactive effects.
Taking marijuana for MS may not always be appropriate. It is not legal in all states, and there may be adverse effects.
Possible side effects include:
- confusion and possibly paranoia
- problems with thinking and reasoning
- nausea and vomiting
- dry mouth and eyes
- increased hunger
- problems with balance and coordination
- a raised heart rate
Smoking cannabis can also damage the lungs.
It is also worth noting that using medical marijuana is not the same as smoking cannabis. Medical marijuana is a preparation that uses extracts of cannabis but does not include the psychoactive substances.
Other marijuana products do not have FDA approval and are not regulated. This means a person cannot be sure of the strength, quality, and contents of most marijuana products.
The FDA have approved two synthetic cannabis products but not for use with MS. More research is necessary to confirm the effectiveness and safety of cannabis extracts before the FDA can approve them for MS.
A person should speak to their doctor about whether marijuana is legal and suitable for them to use, and how to obtain a suitable product.
Marijuana may be beneficial for people with MS.
Scientific evidence suggests that it can lessen pain, muscle problems, and bladder issues. Additional, larger-scale clinical studies are necessary to confirm these findings.
People should speak with their doctor before deciding to use marijuana for MS. The doctor can help them weigh up the costs and benefits of the treatment and determine whether or not it is safe and suitable for them.