Multiple sclerosis (MS) is an autoimmune disease where the body’s immune system mistakenly attacks healthy tissue in the central nervous system, primarily the brain and spinal cord. Specifically, the disease causes the immune system to attack myelin, a fatty substance forming a protective, insulating sheath on nerve fibres. Scar tissue, known as sclerosis, forms due to the myelin damage.
Over time, the damage can spread from the myelin to the nerve fibres. The damage disrupts or distorts the nerve impulses in the central nervous system, which causes a variety of symptoms, primarily pain and difficulty in controlling the body.
The symptoms of MS depend on the nerves damaged and the extent of that damage. They tend to vary from one patient to the next. Additionally, each person’s symptoms change over the course of the disease. In the beginning of the disease, the symptoms may be mild enough that the patient doesn’t need any treatment. As it progresses, those symptoms become more pronounced or last for longer periods.
Some potential symptoms of MS include:
MS affects the brain and spinal cord, meaning that both the higher functioning and basic processes that keep the patient alive are affected. While there are different types of MS, the condition tends to deteriorate over time to the point that the patient can’t take care of themselves. MS is often a disabling disease. Some patients eventually lose the ability to speak and walk.
According to the MS Society in the UK, “One in five people with MS we surveyed in 2014 told us they’d used cannabis to help with their symptoms. They said it can help with muscle spasms or stiffness (spasticity) and pain.”
Inflammation of neural tissue is the primary characterisation of multiple sclerosis. Cannabis is well-known to reduce inflammation and has been used as an anti-inflammatory for thousands of years by physicians and herbalists the world over. In recent years, the ability of cannabis to reduce MS-related inflammation has been thoroughly investigated and has provided the basis for the world’s first market-approved pharmaceutical—Sativex, produced by the UK company GW Pharmaceutical.
Pain is one of the most common and debilitating symptoms of MS and is experienced by 50-70% of sufferers. MS-related pain occurs either directly as a result of inflammation of neural tissue, or as a result of muscle spasms and spasticity exerting pressure on the musculoskeletal system. Cannabis has proven ability to manage pain associated with MS. In a clinical trial conducted on humans in 2005, cannabis-based medicine delivered in the form of a sublingual spray was demonstrated to be significantly more effective than placebo at reducing pain and sleep disturbances in MS sufferers. Cannabis reduces pain in MS sufferers by directly working to reduce immune response and resultant inflammation, and also reduces musculoskeletal pain caused by muscle spasms and spasticity.
Muscle spasms—sudden, involuntary contractions of a muscle or muscle group—are another common feature of MS and are reported by up to 80% of patients. Spasms can cause a sharp, temporary sensation of pain that usually disappears after a short time. Muscle spasticity is a related symptom and refers to the state of constant contraction of a muscle or muscle group, leading to pain, stiffness and a sensation of “tightness”. Cannabis has been demonstrated to both reduce the frequency of muscle spasms and the severity of muscle spasticity. In 2005, a randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled, crossover study (considered the gold standard of clinical trials) found that 37 of 50 patients enrolled in the study showed improvements in mobility and the frequency of muscle spasms.
Clinical depression is a common feature of multiple sclerosis and is experienced by up to 50% of MS sufferers throughout the course of the illness. Depression in MS may occur due to damage to the nerves that help to regulate mood or may be a side-effect of other medications used to control the progression of the disease. As well as major depression, MS can also lead to a range of associated symptoms of emotional dysfunction. Several studies have indicated that THC, CBD, and cannabichromene (CBC) can exert an antidepressant effect. The endocannabinoid system is known to play an important role in mood regulation and subjective levels of happiness, and endocannabinoids such as anandamide are fundamental to the process. It is believed that certain genetic variations in the expression of CB1-receptors render some individuals more susceptible to the mood-elevating effects of cannabis.
The ability of CBD and THC, in synergy, to reduce inflammation, manage pain and act as an anti-spasmodic agent, has been proven and many MS sufferers have found significant relief from their symptoms with medical cannabis. Meg Lewellyn is a mom of three. She was diagnosed with MS in 2007. You can read more about her story on her blog, BBHwithMS.