First off, let’s look at the relevant numbers. Over 2.5 million people in the US have multiple sclerosis, and over 15 million people have suffered a spinal cord injury. A significant amount of these individuals suffer from stiff, aching, cramping, spasming muscles. These symptoms can cause insomnia, limitation of movement, along with pain. Medical marijuana has shown promising results for treating the symptoms of MS and spinal cord injury.
There are conventional medications available by prescription for these symptoms, but at times those meds cause weakness or drowsiness. Muscle spasms are when patients tense reflexively and resist stretching. Patients utilizing medical marijuana for reducing muscle spasticity and pain have found substantial relief.
It is not known exactly how medical marijuana calms spasticity. It has not been tested on a large scale, but all of the smaller scale evaluations have shown really good results.
Multiple sclerosis involves what is thought to be a malfunctioning immune system, resulting in inflamed nerves throughout the brain and spinal cord. The fibers around the nerves are like the insulation around a power cord, and unfortunately what MS does is it destroys the insulation. Without it, nerves do not conduct necessary impulses. Symptoms then include, fatigue, depression, vertigo, incontinence, blindness, and muscle spasticity.
Muscle spasticity in MS is fairly ubiquitous, 90% of patients suffer from muscle spasms along with aches, cramps, along with painful involuntary muscle contractions. These symptoms typically worsen with time and may leave patients partially or even completely paralyzed.
Conventional medications for muscle spasms with MS include baclofen and tizanadine (Zanaflex). They are sedatives, so they often cause drowsiness along with dry mouth and muscle weakness. In a patient with MS, muscle weakness is already a problem. Exacerbating it is not optimal.
It needs to be noted that there has not been a large scale study evaluating marijuana and THC. Multiple small scale studies have shown excellent results for decreasing muscle spasms along with pain. Not all patients achieved success, however, and there were some unpleasant side effects.
It may be difficult to distinguish a satisfactory result from THC due to placebo versus actual spasm reduction. Without a large scale study to partition out placebo, which can be upwards of 30% with medications, it can be tough to say for sure. These large scale results are underway in Britain, where medical marijuana is frequently used for MS.
What is it about marijuana that helps patients with MS? And if it helps with MS will it help the muscle spasms in patients with spinal cord injury? Anecdotally patients with MS report satisfactory results for pain and spasm. Is it due to the range of effects that THC provides, such as anti-anxiety, in addition to decreasing spasms? Anxiety can make spasms worse, and THC helps relieve that. In addition, THC does not have a muscle weakening effect. If a patient has MS that is a continual problem anyway, so exacerbating it is not optimal.
Oral intake of THC may prove to be optimal since it has a longer duration of smoking without the potential complications of lung inhalation. Spinal cord injury patients have consistent symptoms through the day so oral intake may be better than for MS, whose symptoms wax and wane. For them, smoking or vaporizing may be better.
At this point, we know anecdotally marijuana works for muscle spasms. Larger clinical studies will help us learn more about the specifics and how it exactly fits into the clinical management of these conditions.