By Kathleen Doheny
SAN DIEGO (Reuters Health) – Cannabis, or marijuana, is an effective drug that can help patients with multiple sclerosis (MS) to reduce debilitating pain and muscle spasms, according to a London researcher who presented his findings Sunday at the 10th World Congress on Pain.
“So many of our patients told us they use cannabis,” said Dr. M. S. Chong, a neurologist at King’s College Hospital, London, that he and his colleagues decided to study its effectiveness and how widespread the use of it is among MS patients.
While a Scottish study recently reported that about 8% of MS patients use cannabis, Chong’s team found that about 43% of 100 MS patients who answered their questionnaires did so. Of those, 53% said they began to use it after the diagnosis was made. Of those who never used it, 76% said they would do so if the drug were legalized.
About half the patients who tried marijuana continued to use it regularly to relieve symptoms. They did so, they said, because it works. Nearly three quarters of current users said it worked to relieve spasms; more than half said it helped to relieve pain.
Multiple sclerosis is a chronic, often debilitating disorder of the central nervous system. Symptoms vary from numbness of the limbs to paralysis, according to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. Up to 55% of those with MS suffer pain, muscle spasms or both, Chong says.
“The more disabled the patient, the more likely they were to use it,” Chong said. To evaluate disability, Chong’s team used a well-respected and validated disability scale. The level of disability was the strongest association with marijuana use, he noted, while he found no association between subjects’ use of cigarettes and alcohol and the use of marijuana.
About one third of the patients worked full- or part-time; 69% were married or cohabiting. The sample was 75% women and 25% men.
The MS patients did not necessarily abuse marijuana. “A lot of patients said they would just take one dose, at night,” Chong stated. But he is not certain if a dose meant an entire joint or not.
How does it work? “We really don’t know,” Chong said, but it probably “enhances our endogenous cannabinoids.” Cannabinoid receptors in the brain have been discovered recently, and were the subject of another Congress presentation, but their roles are just beginning to be revealed.
The patients who tried marijuana were also on conventional drugs for pain relief and spasm relief, Chong added. “I think it basically shows a lot of our conventional drugs are not very good.”