Will medical marijuana prove to be a miracle treatment for people with multiple sclerosis (MS)?
The National Multiple Sclerosis Society says there are uncertainties about how effective marijuana is in relieving MS symptoms. But the organization supports the right of patients to work with healthcare providers to access medical marijuana where legal.
Supporters of medicinal marijuana are more forceful in their advocacy.
On the website herb.com, supporters say medicinal marijuana has been “widely successful” in treating MS symptoms. They list seven ways they say cannabis eases MS symptoms.
Long history of treatment
Cannabis has been used since ancient times for a variety of conditions.
In 2011, a cannabis extract was first approved in Germany for the treatment of spasticity in people with MS.
Since then, only two synthetic drugs containing THC have been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). They are Marinol and Cesamet, used for treating nausea in people undergoing chemotherapy and people with HIV.
The only naturally occurring THC-based drug — the oral spray Sativex — used for the treatment of spasticity in people with MS, is approved in several countries including France, Canada, and Sweden. However, it is currently not available in the United States.
Although the FDA has not approved any product containing botanical marijuana, FDA officials say they understand there is considerable interest in the use of the substance to treat a number of medical conditions, including MS.
And while studies continue to recognize the benefits, many people are not waiting for FDA approval. Self-medicating with marijuana is common, with the most frequently reported conditions being pain, anxiety, depression, headache and migraine, nausea, and muscle spasticity.
How it works
Cannabis works with the endocannabinoid (EC) system in the human body via the CB1 and CB2 receptors by mimicking natural chemicals created in the body.
This action encourages growth and activity within the EC system.
The EC system is found throughout the brains and bodies of all mammals. It influences memory, energy, balance, metabolism, response to stress, and more. Basically everything that can be affected in a person with MS.
While receptor C1 is found primarily in the brain and C2 in the immune system, both receptors have been found on immune cells suggesting a strong relationship between THC and immunosuppression.
Why use it
Pain throughout the body may be targeted with ingesting or vaporizing cannabis, while a specific spasm might be treated with a topical ointment or transdermal patch.
Cannabis has shown continued success in helping people with MS control bladder issues such as incontinence and leakage with only a few side effects, suggesting it is a safe and effective treatment for other symptoms in people with MS.
Losing sleep is not just an annoyance. It can cause fatigue and depression and affect mental stability and cognitive function. Cannabinoids have been found to help with sleep issues and prevent worsening symptoms.
Inflammation is considered the root of many illnesses and known to cause MS symptoms and relapses. Due to the interaction with receptors C1 and C2, cannabinoids are considered potent anti-inflammatories, a critical element in reducing MS activity.
There are several ways to take cannabis including ingestion, smoking, vaporizing, and topical use. Any kind of smoking can cause injury to the large airways and promote chronic bronchitis, and is not considered a safe way to take cannabis. Edibles, while considered safer, are sometimes difficult to measure with regard to the THC quantity.
Using a vaporizer has shown to be a safe and efficient way to take medicinal cannabis. And topical ointments and dermal patches provide an easy way to target specific areas on the body.
While some medical facilities and professionals are still opposed to medical marijuana, a growing number of doctors and clinics across the country are calling for more extensive and representative clinical trials as a result of a significant number of successful studies.
Editor's note: Caroline Craven is a patiebnt living with MS. Her award-winning blog is GirlwithMs.com. She can be found at @thegirlwithms.