There’s a growing body of research supporting the use of cannabis for MS symptom relief. Would it work for me?

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Jeremy Pawlowski/Stocksy United

If you have multiple sclerosis, you already know that MS symptoms can be difficult to treat.

In the absence of effective solutions, a growing number of people are looking to medical cannabis to manage common MS problems like chronic nerve pain, spasticity, and insomnia. Left unmanaged, these symptoms can have a profound impact on quality of life.

Having lived with MS for 19 years, I’m well acquainted with nerve pain, spasticity, and insomnia — and how distressing these symptoms can be.

I’ve tried conventional medications to address spasticity and pain, only to find myself dry mouthed, dizzy, and nursing an upset stomach.

Seizing legs and red-hot nerve pain lead to insomnia, and most days, this lack of sleep on top of MS fatigue leaves me feeling cranky and drowsy even after I’ve had my morning coffee.

Tired of being caught in a cycle of pain and sleeplessness (that only begets more pain and sleeplessness), I became more and more intrigued by the symptom relief others with MS have had using medical cannabis.

Their success wasn’t just anecdotal, either.

There’s a growing body of compelling research that suggests people with MS may benefit from the numerous pharmacological effects of CBD and THC, two chemical components of cannabis, particularly when it comes to managing pain and spasticity.

I decided medical cannabis was worth a shot. Here’s what I learned.

There’s an overwhelming amount of choice when it comes to medical cannabis that goes beyond understanding the difference between CBD and THC and how they work together.

Medical cannabis is not as simple as having a prescription filled. Unlike other medications, this treatment requires a fair amount of research as well as trial and error on the part of the patient.

There are strains, strengths, methods, and brands to consider.

Do you want hybrid, indica, or sativa? What are the benefits of a balanced product? Do you want something THC-dominant or CBD-dominant? Do you want dried cannabis, edibles, oil, gels, concentrates, cartridges, or topicals?

When you’ve figured all that out, you still have to pick a brand and shop for accessories if required. And just like all things MS, what works for one person won’t necessarily work for you.

It’s a lot to sift through, and odds are this isn’t your family doctor’s area of expertise.

A few months ago, I made an online appointment with a physician specializing in medical cannabis. (In Canada, where I live, doctors are able to prescribe medical cannabis.)

We met over video conference for 30 minutes before the doctor decided I was a good candidate and wrote me a prescription. Even then, the prescription was vague.

I was allowed a fixed amount of medical cannabis per month (30 grams, because I was a rookie). The doctor recommended certain forms of cannabis, but the actual products I could buy were entirely up to me.

As I looked at the online menu I felt overwhelmed. I made another call, this time to the pharmacist for specific product recommendations.

I was encouraged to try a THC/CBD oil at bedtime, and vaping for any breakthrough pain during the day.

Unsure as to how cannabis might affect my workday, I decided to try one thing at a time and opted to start slowly and see how I reacted to the oil.

Note that in the United States, where cannabis is a Schedule I drug, it’s illegal for physicians and nurse practitioners to prescribe it. In states that allow medical cannabis, providers can make recommendations.

Everyone’s experience will be different.

I have relatively good private medical insurance. However, even with a prescription, the heavy cost of this medication is frustratingly out-of-pocket compared to traditional pharmaceuticals that are covered by my drug plan.

If you live in the United States, your insurer won’t cover any cannabis-related costs.

Also be aware that it can be time-consuming and costly to sample different products as you figure out what works best for you.

My medication arrived in surprisingly difficult-to-open packaging with exceptionally small writing, considering the intended market.

The dosing instructions were an ill-defined and completely subjective “start slow.” The oil came with a tiny dropper. I filled it and put the oil under my tongue.

Three hours later, I was ready for bed. Like most nights, my left leg was spasming out of control. Desperate for sleep, I assumed I hadn’t taken nearly enough of the medication.

I refilled the dropper, and took another dose. A rookie mistake.

I was able to get back to sleep, but, when I woke up in the middle of the night to pee (standard for me), I realized I was very, very high.

Though the room felt like it was spinning, I made it to the bathroom, but not back to bed. I fainted on the floor.

Cannabis oil and edibles take considerably longer than smoking or vaping to take effect. However, the effects last much longer when consumed.

While most will see a benefit within 2 hours, this hasn’t always been my experience. Even with a medically-regulated product, it can be difficult to measure a precise dose and results can be inconsistent.

If you’ve overdone it, you have to ride out unwanted side effects, or in extreme cases seek medical attention.

That night when I fainted turned into a morning when I fainted again. It took a full 24 hours, and a fair amount of paranoid Googling “Can you die from THC overdose?” before I felt like myself again.

It’s the THC component of CBD/THC oil that’s responsible for psychotropic effects. There’s some evidence that taking additional CBD can tone down the effects of THC, but more research is needed.

In addition to an unwanted high, like any medication, cannabis use can have side effects that are worth considering, including:

  • cognitive impairment
  • anxiety or paranoia
  • dry mouth
  • sedation
  • increased appetite
  • impaired balance and coordination

These are just some of the more well-known side effects, and research is both mixed and ongoing on these and other side effects.

I limit my use of medical cannabis to nighttime, because the drug increases my susceptibility to falls. I already have weak legs and wonky balance.

In my experience, it’s a fine line between reducing spasticity enough that I can sleep, and temporarily not being able to safely walk at all.

While you may experience some relief from your MS symptoms, medical cannabis doesn’t cure MS, nor is it a disease modifying therapy (DMT).

Medical cannabis will not influence the course of your MS and is used for symptom management only.

Medical cannabis is just one of the tools I use to manage my MS, in concert with conventional medications, diet, and lifestyle modifications.

While I haven’t been able to eliminate my pain and spasticity entirely, I have found a cannabis dose and product that has reduced these symptoms in a meaningful way.

I’m happy to report that most nights, CBD/THC oil allows me to sleep better. What’s more, I’ve been able to stop taking two conventional pain medications.

When it comes to the management of MS, there are no easy answers and no one approach that works for everyone. You need to be an informed patient and weigh the risks and benefits for you.

When used appropriately, medical cannabis has the potential to reduce the intensity of some MS symptoms, and many people report a considerable improvement to their quality of life.

Ardra Shephard is the influential Canadian blogger behind the award-winning blog Tripping On Air — the irreverent insider scoop about her life with multiple sclerosis. Ardra is a script consultant for AMI’s television series about dating and disability, “There’s Something You Should Know,” and has been featured on Sickboy Podcast. Ardra has contributed to, The Mighty, xojane, Yahoo Lifestyle, and others. In 2019, she was the keynote speaker at the MS Foundation of the Cayman Islands. Follow her on Instagram, Facebook, or hashtag #babeswithmobilityaids to be inspired by people working to change perceptions of what it looks like to live with a disability.