Cannabis as an alternative treatment to traditional drug-based pharmaceuticals is on the rise. Cannabinoids, the compounds within the marijuana plant, react with the body’s endocannabinoid system (ECS) to provide relief from pain and inflammation associated with a wide variety of medical conditions.
One condition where cannabis seems to be an especially useful treatment is multiple sclerosis (MS). Statistical data indicate that the number of Canadians affected by MS will increase from around 98,000 in 2011 to 133,000 or more by 2031. It’s estimated that this surge in MS cases will cost the Canadian health sector $2 billion.
Canada has one of the highest rates of MS worldwide, and the condition continues to have a big impact on the health-care and economic sectors in the country. Using cannabis as a treatment for the disease can help lower this cost while providing patients with a safer and sometimes more effective way to deal with the condition.
MS Causes, Symptoms & Treatment
MS is a degenerative, chronic disease that affects the central nervous system. It eventually causes nerves to deteriorate or become permanently damaged. MS affects more women than men, with people between the ages of 20 and 40 noticing symptoms such as:
- Paralysis in the legs
- General muscle stiffness
- Muscle spasms
- Bladder problems
Risk factors for MS include:
- Family history
- Previous infections
- Other autoimmune diseases such as Type 1 diabetes and inflammatory bowel disease
- Climate (MS prevalence is higher in countries with temperate climates)
While no one knows what causes MS, the condition is often thought to occur as a result of genetic predisposition and environmental factors.
Since MS is such a debilitating disease, people who develop the condition are often faced with underemployment and long-term disability. In fact, as many as 80% of Canadians with MS are unemployed. Although there’s no cure for MS, developing treatments as well as cannabis may help ease symptoms such as chronic pain, discomfort and inflammation.
- Immune system suppressants such as steroids
- Antispasmodic drugs
These treatments are used in combination to address symptoms such as muscle spasms and nerve pain. They also help slow progression of the condition. But they tend to come with their own set of dangerous side effects, which can include lethargy, dependence and even death.
What the Research Says About Cannabis as a Treatment for MS
For people with MS, cannabis strains with equal levels of cannabidiol (CBD) and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), and ones that contain more CBD have been shown to reduce pain and muscle spasticity. A 1:1 ratio of THC and CBD seems to be especially well tolerated by MS patients who are unable to take conventional antispastic drugs.
A case report of standardized cannabis administration in one MS patient also indicates promising results with an average daily intake of 500 mg cannabis high in THC and CBD. Within a month of using orally administered cannabis, the patient experienced a reduction in pain scores from 8–10 (very severe to the worst possible pain) to just 1–2 (no to mild pain). Pain levels and tremors were also significantly reduced.
The only side effect to cannabis use experienced by this MS patient was mild discomfort when marijuana strains were changed. When cannabis use was discontinued, symptoms worsened within a few days.
Treating MS With Marijuana May Cause Cognitive Decline in the Young
MS can be diagnosed in young people under the age of 21. During childhood and adolescence, the condition negatively impacts brain growth and restricts the normal development of neuronal networks. Medical marijuana use by young MS patients may further negatively affect cognition and brain volume. In an American study that surveyed young MS patients who consumed marijuana to treat the condition, 64% of respondents indicated that while marijuana alleviated pain and discomfort resulting from MS, they felt that it also negatively impacted cognitive functioning including memory and focus. Most researchers agree that further studies are needed to assess the efficacy of marijuana for treating MS in children and youth.
Research shows that cognitive difficulties in MS patients who use cannabis can include:
- Memory problems
- Slower information processing
- General cognitive dysfunction
This impairment may affect various aspects of the lives of MS patients such as forging relationships, finding employment and pursuing recreational interests.
This doesn’t mean that individuals with MS shouldn’t consume cannabis; rather, MS patients who consider marijuana for treatment should approach with caution and discontinue use immediately if negative effects and limited cognitive functioning occur.
Recommended Cannabis Strains to Ease MS Symptoms
- Great White Shark: This cannabis strain provides a strong body buzz, perfect for treating chronic pain and stress. Great White Shark also imparts an intense head high, suitable for for relaxing days at home, but not recommended for times when you need to focus.
- God Bud: God Bud is an indica-dominant hybrid with a flavour profile consisting of tropical fruit, lavender and berry. It’s reported to reduce inflammation and muscle spasms, which is why a number of MS sufferers rely on this strain as medicine.
- Alaskan Thunderfuck: A sativa cannabis strain, Alaskan Thunderfuck has strong lemon, pine and menthol aromas. It produces a euphoric high and is very effective for stress, pain and depression.
- Super Sour OG: A sour smell and flavour mark this hybrid marijuana strain. It has intense muscle-relaxing properties and helps reduce muscle spasticity. Euphoria and pain reduction are sure to follow.
- One to One: A hybrid cannabis strain with citrus notes, this strain is great for reducing muscle spasms and pain. True to its name, it has a perfect 1:1 ratio of CBD to THC. One to One also has a relatively high percentage (14%) of each cannabinoid.
Indica and sativa cannabis strains may be effective in reducing muscle spasms and chronic pain associated with MS. Although caution must be taken especially in younger MS patients, cannabis is a promising alternative treatment for MS.
Photo credit: Joe Gardner