What is Multiple Sclerosis?

Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a neurological disease; that is, it affects the nerves; in this disease it is the nerves in the brain and spinal cord that are involved. Our nerves are carried in a fatty covering and in MS this covering starts to break down, leaving the nerve cells unprotected and unable to communicate with one another.

On of the auto-immune diseases, the cause of the breakdown of these cell sheaths is the patient’s own body, which attacks itself. The usual age for diagnosis of MS is between 20 and 40 and it is more common in females.

The sclerosis bit of multiple sclerosis comes from the Greek and means to harden; this refers to the scar tissue that eventually builds, particularly in the brain and spinal cord, up as the disease runs its course.

What are the Symptoms of Multiple Sclerosis?

The symptoms of MS are as many and varied as the people who get the disease, including:

  • Changes in sensation – loss of sensitivity, for instance
  • Pins and needles
  • Numbness
  • Muscle weakness
  • Muscular spasms
  • Loss of balance and coordination (Ataxia)
  • Slurred speech
  • Difficulties with swallowing
  • Visual disturbances
  • Overwhelming fatigue
  • Pain – both acute and chronic
  • Problems with the bladder and/or bowel
  • And, quite understandably, depression is common to varying degrees

As with many of the auto-immune diseases, this is a disease of ‘flare ups’ or ‘flares.’  So, the person will experience symptoms of the illness and then get better.  With MS, though, the symptoms get progressively worse with each flare.  Although the flares can appear ‘out of the blue’ and with no precipitating factor, there are some common triggers: viral infections; stress; gastroenteritis; pregnancy; all have been cited as setting off attacks.

How is Multiple Sclerosis Treated?

Currently, treatment for MS is symptomatic, that is, each symptom is treated as a separate entity as it occurs – the disease is not treated as a whole.  So, strong analgesics will be prescribed for pain; antidepressants will be given for lowered mood, etc.

When an attack is happening, the routine is to give steroids, either as a tablet or, in more serious flares, straight into the bloodstream.  This gives reasonable short term relief but has no impact in the long term; in severe flares, where the steroids don’t have the desired effect, a blood exchange transfusion (plasmapheresis) may be carried out.  In this procedure, the patient’s blood is separated into red cells and plasma and the plasma is filtered to exclude the antibodies that are giving rise to the symptoms before being replaced back into the patient’s bloodstream.  Obviously this is a slow process, as it has to be done in stages – generally 300 mls of blood are removed and filtered at a time.

So, treatment is quite dramatic, relying on steroids with their well noted unpleasant side effects or removal and cleaning of the blood, not a procedure that can be undertaken lightly.

It would be wonderful, wouldn’t it, if something far less dramatic could be used to help these life-inhibiting symptoms?

Medical Marijuana and Multiple Sclerosis

Given the title of this article, you won’t be surprised to see cannabis cited as a treatment for multiple sclerosis and, in fact, there has been much media interest in this potential treatment. Like the disease itself, this media attention seems to come along in flares.

In a recent study of the use of THC, one of the active constituents of cannabis, in animals suffering encephalomyelitis (the animal version of MS), the results were very promising.  In particular, the marijuana eased the spasticity and tremors the animals were experiencing – and both of these symptoms are common in MS patients. The study was a good one, that is, it was well controlled and undertaken in an ethical manner. Furthermore, the ability of cannabis to reduce the frequency and strength of the autoimmune attacks has been demonstrated.

MS patients using cannabis have reported improved bladder control, reduction of tremors, and a return to full mobility – with wheelchair bound patients being able to walk unaided after using marijuana.

Sadly, in the field of medicine, anecdotal accounts are not sufficient ‘proof’ of a drug’s efficacy; findings such as those quoted above have to be supported by good, well controlled research.

Well controlled research is difficult to undertake with marijuana, simply because of its psychoactive properties – people randomised to the cannabis taking group in any study would know because they would feel high.

Some early studies were undertaken in an attempt to quantify the effect of THC on spacticity, tremor and balance. In most of these studies the THC was administered orally in carefully controlled dosages.  Results were mixed and all patients who took part in the trials reported ‘uncomfortable side effects.’  And, of course, the thorny issue of tobacco usage and the concomitant health problems always comes into play.  However, with the increased availability of vaporizers, smoking tobacco doesn’t need to be part of a ‘cannabis cure.’T o determine the role of THC in

Can Medical Marijuana be recommended for Multiple Sclerosis?

Well, it seems the American Nurses Association had no problems back in 2003 in passing a resolution recognizing, “the right of patients to have safe access to therapeutic marijuana/cannabis.”  The Association called for more research and education into the medical use of cannabis, as well as a rescheduling of the drug for and calls for medical use. chronic pain, spasticity, and depression

Likewise, results from a series of studies undertaken by GW Pharmaceuticals demonstrate that the cannabis preparation Sativex was, “significantly superior to placebo, and there were subjective improvements in spasm frequency, bladder control, spasticity, and sleep.”  As a consequence, in 2005 GW gained approval from the Canadian government to distribute Sativex for the “symptomatic relief of neuropathic pain in adults with Multiple Sclerosis.”

And to support all of these study results, recent research on the cannabinoid receptors in the brain proposes that they may play a role in movement control.

And, perhaps more important than all of these findings, a meeting at London’s Institute of Neurology was told recently that, “in addition to symptom management, cannabis may also slow down the neurodegenerative processes that ultimately lead to chronic disability in multiple sclerosis and probably other diseases.”

Personal Experiences of using Medical Marijuana for the Symptomatic Relief of MS

So, the research has, to a certain extent, been going for sometime; however, it’s instructive to hear the personal experiences of people who have actually used cannabis to help them deal with their MS.

Americans for Safe Access (ASA) has a number of such stories on their website; they make interesting reading, as do the testimonies of the doctors treating them.  ASA is, in fact, an excellent resource for information about the use of cannabis to treat MS, and their leaflet Multiple Sclerosis and Medical Marijuana would be a first rate next step on your journey to discovering more about how this multi-functional drug might be able to help you.


Author Dianne Morgan

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