BY KASANDRA BRABAW
Multiple Sclerosis, commonly referred to as MS, is a debilitating, wide-ranging, and deadly condition that is, unfortunately, fairly likely to impact someone in your life: In the United States alone, nearly one million people over 18 have been diagnosed with MS, according to a recent study funded by the National MS Society. Great strides have been made in recent years, but researchers are still searching for a cure to this devastating disease.
People who suffer from MS can have a number of symptoms, which vary greatly from person to person. MS causes a person’s immune system to attack the protective casing around the nerves, according to the Mayo Clinic, and it causes communication problems between the brain and the rest of the body. Symptoms can include: numbness or weakness in the limbs and trunk of your body, spasticity (which includes both muscle tightness and involuntary muscle spasms), bladder dysfunction, chronic pain, dizziness, trouble walking, fatigue, and blurred vision.
Doctors who treat the disease help patients manage these incapacitating symptoms and slow down the toll they take on the body. More and more, such medical professionals are finding that patients are considering cannabis as a treatment, explains Bardia Nourbakhsh, MD, a neurologist at The Johns Hopkins Hospital. Dr. Nourbakhsh has studied cannabis as a treatment for MS and often counsels patients who are considering using medical marijuana.
When patients come to his office asking about marijuana, Dr. Nourbakhsh relies on research from randomized, controlled trials to guide them. There’s solid evidence, he says, that cannabis effectively treats some MS symptoms, particularly spasticity and chronic pain, either from nerve damage or pain from muscle spasms. This may not be too surprising, given that medical marijuana is often used to treat other types of chronic pain, as well.
Dr. Nourbakhsh says it’s important to note that there currently isn’t any definitive evidence that cannabis can slow MS down or prevent the disease from getting worse, so he makes sure his patients know that cannabis cannot replace all of their traditional medications. People who have MS will still have to take specific drugs to help prevent their symptoms from getting worse. So, cannabis would just be one part of a larger MS treatment plan, and patients should work with their doctors to figure out what’s best for them.
However, doctors likely won’t be able to tell patients the exact dosage, Dr. Nourbakhsh says. For one, there’s not a lot of research about cannabis dosing specifically for MS. Plus, treatment with cannabis is always a very personal matter. “Cannabis is not a “one size fits all” treatment plan,” says Christina Youssef, FNP, a family nurse practitioner in Staten Island who counsels patients on using cannabis. She suggests that anyone looking to try cannabis as a treatment should start by microdosing. Begin with a very small amount of medical marijuana, and then slowly take a higher dose in order to identify the amount that treats your chronic pain, muscle spasms, or muscle tightness. If you find yourself overdoing it, scale back until you finally hit that sweet spot.
While there’s always some risk with any substance you put into your body, medical cannabis is relatively safe, Youssef says. “There are some potential risks, such as cardiac risk in an individual with previous stent placement or open heart surgery,” she cautions. Those who have chronic respiratory illness, a history of schizophrenia, clinical anxiety, or anyone who is pregnant or breastfeeding should be careful with cannabis or avoid using it altogether.
“It’s important to discuss each individual’s goals and pre-existing conditions before exploring medical marijuana,” Youssef says. If you’re planning to ask your doctor about cannabis for medical reasons—like MS—be sure to bring up any of these issues, and don’t be shy! They’re here to help.
One of the great things about cannabis as a component in an overall treatment plan for MS is that it gives patients the opportunity to be part of the process: “The ultimate goal is to find the best regimen for each unique individual,” Youssef says. If you’re considering medical cannabis for MS, talk to your doctor; it’s the first step to figuring out how it might be a key component in your overall treatment plan.