Can cannabis be used in Multiple Sclerosis treatment?
More than 100,000 people in the UK have been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and, according to a study carried out by the MS Society, 1 in 5 people surveyed said they’d used cannabis to help ease their symptoms.
With MS patients like Penny Fitzlyon claiming cannabis “totally transformed” her quality of life after traditional opioid treatment left her legs ‘in agony, [her]balance terrible, [her] speech slurred and [her] eyes popping in all directions’, the hype around cannabis treatment for MS seems merited.
So, what is multiple sclerosis and how can cannabis help to mitigate the effects of this seriously debilitating condition? In this article we’ll be laying out what multiple sclerosis is and why mounting numbers of people are investigating cannabis as a treatment for this issue.
What is multiple sclerosis?
Multiple sclerosis (MS) is an autoimmune condition that affects the brain and spinal cord when the myelin sheath, a coating that protects the nerves, is damaged.
Once MS is diagnosed,usually in people in their 20s and 30s, it remains as a lifelong condition that can cause serious and limiting disability in some people as no cure has been found for the condition.
The symptoms of MS can vary widely between people, but the main symptoms associated with the condition include:
- Muscle spasms/stiffness
- Difficulties with coordination and balance
- Difficulties thinking, planning and learning
- Bladder-control problems
- Difficulty walking
Depending on the MS diagnosis, these symptoms may get gradually worse over time or come and go in phases.
How can cannabis help?
Multiple Sclerosis is the only condition in the U.K that currently has a licensed cannabis-based treatment. Nabiximols, otherwise known as Sativex, is used to treat spasticity caused by the condition.
Sativex tends to be given in an oromucosal spray form that is comprised of equal parts THC and CBD which combats muscle spasms and stiffness.
Whilst Sativex is not guaranteed to work and often doesn’t work for a lot of people, for people who are receptive to the drug, Sativex makes their spasticity symptoms significantly better. Indeed, about 50% of people in one study found that Sativex reduced their symptoms by 20% within a four-week period.
Interestingly, despite the fact that Sativex is licensed only for the treatment of spasticity symptoms, many people have reported that Sativex helps with other symptoms of multiple sclerosis like bladder problems,pain, difficulty sleeping and tremor too.
Are there any side effects?
Possible side effects of Sativex include:
- Dry mouth
Sativex could also potentially make some side effects of MS worse, for instance fatigue.
Side effects generally lessen after a few weeks though and can usually be reduced by taking fewer doses.
Another side effect that is sometimes reported is a high similar to the high experienced when smoking cannabis.
Side effects common with recreational cannabis use including memory, mental health and dependency issues are not experienced by those using Sativex, despite its THC content. If any side effects similar to these occur,individuals are encouraged to contact their doctors immediately as these symptoms will need to be monitored until they stop.
This drug is not recommended for those who have serious mental health problems, a history of psychosis, are under the age of 18 or those who are pregnant or breastfeeding. It is also not recommended for those with kidney or severe liver problems.
The future of cannabis use for MS treatment:
Despite the fact that doctors can legally prescribe Sativex in the U.K, NHS access to the drug is very limited as Sativex is not considered to be a cost-effective treatment for the NHS in England, Scotland or Northern Ireland.
Regardless of where you are in the U.K though, Sativex can be prescribed privately, usually by neurologists, with a month’s supply tending to cost around £500.However, this is rare, even with changes in the law in November 2018 that theoretically made it easier for neurologists to prescribe such medicines to a limited number of people with MS. This is also an expensive option, so it is not possible for many people in any case.
Penny Fitzlyon, like many, cannot afford the expensive private prescription costs of the medicinal cannabis products currently legal in the U.K. She explains:”I spend £250 a month for one ounce, enough for the six joints a day I need to function. So, because I am poor, I am forced to become a criminal. How is this fair?”
These sentiments are echoed by many across the U.K who find that cannabis is the only treatment with any effect on their crippling MS symptoms.
Whilst a proposed update of the 2014 MS Guideline from NICE mentions new evidence that“indicates that [Sativex] may be cost effective”,NICE has not currently set a date indicating when any updated guideline would be published, so it is unclear if or when Sativex could become more widely available on the NHS throughout the U.K.
Until such guidelines are released, obtaining medical cannabis for M.S treatment may remain as a highly expensive struggle faced by many with debilitating symptoms.
Further investigation and research into medicinal cannabis and alternative medical options is thoroughly encouraged by The Academy, particularly through the use of our own online courses, evidence base and whitepapers.
The rest of our resources are available on our website. We urge anyone considering use of medical cannabis products to consult with a trained medical professional prior to beginning use.