Current Affairs

Recent data on medical cannabis for multiple sclerosis

Loren DeVito, PhD
Written by Loren DeVito, PhD

While the first half of 2019 has not yet come to a close, it’s already been a big year for cannabis research. In fact, a PubMed search of articles containing the word “cannabis” revealed a whopping 457 studies and reviews published this year. And this does not even take into account research that is late-breaking, as the publication process can take months or even years.

For the most recent data on cannabis (or other fields of study), one must visit or read abstracts presented at academic society conferences. In April, the American Academy of Neurology (or AAN) held its annual meeting in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Researchers from across the world presented data on their latest findings. Of the many abstracts and posters, 16 were related to cannabis research. In fact, four of these were related to the benefits of cannabis for people with multiple sclerosis (MS):

  • An abstract presented by Domen et al., at the University of Colorado, evaluated characteristics of people with MS in Colorado, where cannabis use is fully legalized. Study participants (both cannabis and non-cannabis users) answered questions online, which included surveys used in clinical trials. The results indicated that people who use cannabis for their symptoms (38% of the sample) had higher rates of disability; however, cannabis was helpful in managing pain and fatigue, with minimal side effects.
  • A similar study was conducted on people with MS who attended the University of British Columbia MS Clinic. Schabas et al. found that 29% of these people use cannabis-based products to treat pain (71%), sleep (71%), mood (44%), spasticity (40%), tremor (20%), bladder dysfunction (9%), and other (15%) symptoms. Oral and smoked cannabis were most common.
  • Speaking of symptoms, researchers in New York performed a retrospective review of 77 people with MS who used medical cannabis. McCormack et al. found that pain (71%), spasticity (43%), and sleep (42%) were treated with medical cannabis. And, 34% of people decreased or discontinued medications like opioids, stimulants, and benzodiazepines. The most common side effect was somnolence, or drowsiness; discontinuation was due to cost or lack of efficacy.
  • Researchers in Oregon took a closer look at spasticity in MS, a symptom that affects 80% of people and significantly interferes with daily life. Hugos et al. reported initial findings from 29 people that are part of a larger study. Nearly one-third used medical cannabis at least weekly to treat pain, as well as spasticity (78%); 89% (8/9) also used a prescription medication for spasticity.

Sativex®, a cannabis-based therapy, is approved outside of the US to treat spasticity in MS. And, as the above results indicate, different types of cannabis may indeed be very helpful in addressing key symptoms of MS.

It’s important to note that, while abstracts reported at academic conferences provide the latest data on cannabis, these are not the same as peer-reviewed studies. Before a paper is published, a manuscript must first undergo review by other researchers to make sure the study’s design, results, and conclusions are sound. So, while these data do not likely represent what be might published, they are a good indication of what you might see in PubMed or in a blog someday.

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Loren DeVito, PhD

Loren DeVito, PhD

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