MS Patients Find Cannabis Helpful for Easing Pain, Spasticity, Study Reports

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by David Melamed, PhD |

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About 85% of people with multiple sclerosis (MS) using cannabis find it to be helpful for pain, and 79% find it eases spasticity, a new study reports.

The study, “Cannabis use in people with multiple sclerosis and spasticity: A cross-sectional analysis,” was published in the journal Multiple Sclerosis and Related Disorders.

previous review study that examined the therapy’s use in neurological disorders suggested that there was sufficient evidence showing that cannabis — and cannabinoids, derived from the cannabis plant — is an effective treatment for spasticity in MS patients. Spasticity refers to a symptom experienced by more than 80% of people with MS, in which muscles stiffen, making movement painful and difficult.

Cannabis legalization remains a complex issue in the United States. It is considered a Schedule I substance by the federal government under the Controlled Substances Act, meaning that it is illegal and considered to have no accepted medical use. Despite this, 33 states have passed legislation that legalizes cannabis for medicinal use.

To better understand the relationship between spasticity and cannabis use, a team of researchers at the Oregon Health and Science University (OSHU) – Portland VA Health Care System surveyed 91 adults with MS regarding their use of the therapy and its effects.

The survey was conducted in the state of Oregon, where cannabis was legalized for medicinal use in 1998, and for recreational use in 2014.

Among the 91 individuals surveyed, 49 reported that they had used cannabis in the past, and 33 reported that they were currently using it.

The team asked patients about the method by which they used the drug. They found that 26 used multiple routes, while 18 used topical solutions, 17 used edible cannabis, 16 used tinctures, 14 smoked it, and 10 vaped it. The researchers speculated that topical solutions were the most popular because spasticity in MS patients is experienced in specific musculoskeletal regions of the body.

The study also surveyed patients on their frequency of use. In total, among the current users, 19 said that they used cannabis daily, while 12 used it once per week to once per month, and two used it less than once per month.

All 33 current users reported that cannabis was “very or somewhat helpful” in dealing with at least one category of various life aspects — including pain, spasticity, sleep, depression, anxiety, and stress — analyzed in the study. Specifically, 28 (85%) said it was somewhat-to-very helpful for pain, and 26 (79%) selected the same response for its helpfulness for spasticity.

The participants were asked in the survey if they also were taking an oral medication for spasticity. A total of 39 patients used just oral medications, while 24 used oral medications and cannabis, nine used cannabis only, and the remaining 19 did not take anything for their spasticity.

The researchers believe this information supports previously published findings indicating that oral medication does not fully relieve spasticity in MS patients.

Interestingly, “there were no differences in patterns of cannabis use based on age, gender, income, education, MS subtype, or patient-reported disability” in the group analyzed, the researchers said.

Based on the survey results, the team concluded that many MS patients use the drug and find it helpful for addressing their spasticity.

“In summary, as cannabis legalization spreads, clinicians are likely to encounter more interest in using cannabis for MS symptoms,” the researchers said.

However, they emphasized that “while evidence supports the benefit of certain cannabinoid formulations for improving self-reported MS-associated spasticity, these specific formulations are not available in the US, and the products in states where cannabis is legal are heterogeneous in their purity and cannabinoid content.”

This makes it difficult to standardize the actual dosage of cannabinoids that a patient might be taking, and also to provide evidence-based recommendations for people with MS.

Thus, “there is a critical need for further research into the safety and efficacy of various cannabinoid formulations for the treatment of MS symptoms, including spasticity,” the team concluded.

Ultimately, these findings indicate that further research into cannabis and MS is necessary, the researchers said.

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