Many medications are effective in treating multiple sclerosis (MS). However, the National Multiple Sclerosis Society continues to seek out better treatments for the common symptoms of MS, including stiffness, pain, and spasticity. And one possible treatment is medical marijuana.
Studying marijuana as a treatment is tricky because it makes you feel high. This makes it hard for researchers to do a blinded study, in which the participants can’t tell whether they are getting a placebo or marijuana. It may also affect how people in a study evaluate their response to treatment.
Based on available studies, the National Multiple Sclerosis Society’s Medical Advisory Board says there's currently not enough data to support the use of marijuana as a treatment for MS. However, research on medical marijuana continues.
Symptoms That Marijuana Might Help
Muscle stiffness. A 2012 study in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery & Psychiatry compared an oral form of marijuana to a placebo as a treatment for muscle stiffness in MS. For the study, 144 people took the oral marijuana and 135 took an oral placebo. After 12 weeks, the marijuana group reported relief of muscle stiffness that was nearly double that of the placebo group.
Pain. A 2012 study in the Canadian Medical Association Journal found that smoking marijuana was significantly better than a placebo cigarette at reducing pain related to MS muscle spasms.
Spasticity. Spasticity is muscle tension and stiffness. A review of available studies on MS spasticity suggests that marijuana helps reduce the feeling of spasticity. However, the National Multiple Sclerosis Society notes that physical testing didn’t always back this finding. The review found that the results do not last more than a few hours and that side effects are common.
Symptoms That Marijuana Might Make Worse
Side effects of marijuana include clouded thinking, dizziness, weakness, and short-term memory loss. All of these can affect MS symptoms. In addition, marijuana might worsen the following MS symptoms:
Balance. Trouble walking and maintaining balance are fairly common MS symptoms. Smoking marijuana can make these symptoms worse. In one study that compared the effect of marijuana on people with MS and those who don't have MS, all people in the study had worse balance after smoking marijuana.
Cognition. Many people with MS develop a type of brain fog called cognitive dysfunction. A 2011 study looked at how smoking marijuana affects thinking in people with MS. It compared people with MS who regularly use marijuana to people with MS who did not use marijuana. The marijuana users performed significantly worse on information processing, memory, and other thought functions than the non-users did.
Medical Marijuana Pros and Cons
There is evidence both for and against using marijuana as an MS treatment. While medical experts say there's not enough evidence to support it, a few studies suggest that it may help symptoms like pain and spasticity.
Another concern is legality. Smoking marijuana for medical reasons is not legal in all states. However, an oral medication using the active ingredient in marijuana has been legal with a doctor’s prescription for a long time. Dronabinol (Marinol) is a synthetic form of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). THC is the active ingredient in marijuana. It has been available in the United States since 1985.
A final consideration is marijuana's effect on your health overall. Long-term smoking of marijuana may lead to an increased risk for cough, wheezing and phlegm. These are all symptoms of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), an irreversible lung disease.
Some studies suggest that marijuana may help MS symptoms of pain and spasticity. Other studies suggest that it may worsen balance problems and cognitive dysfunction.
Research is continuing into both smoked and oral forms of medical marijuana for MS.
If you are considering marijuana as a treatment, talk with your doctor about all the risks and benefits.