Today smoked cannabis is a sanctioned self-treatment for verifiable medical conditions in 17 U.S. states, Canada, the Netherlands and Israel, among other places. It usually requires a doctor’s recommendation and some paperwork.
People smoke the drug to alleviate pain, sleep easier and deal with nausea, lack of appetite and mood disorders such as anxiety, stress and depression. Patients not wanting to smoke cannabis can seek out prescriptions for FDA-approved capsules containing cannabis compounds for treatment of some of these same problems.
Research now suggests that multiple sclerosis could join the growing list of cannabis-treated ailments. More than a dozen medical trials in the past decade have shown that treatments containing THC (and some that combine THC with another derivative called cannabidiol, or CBD) not only ease pain in MS patients but also alleviate other problems associated with the disease. MS results from damage to the fatty sheaths that insulate nerves in the brain and spinal cord.
“MS patients get burning pain in the legs and muscle stiffness and spasms that keep them awake at night,” says John Zajicek, a neurologist at the Peninsula College of Medicine and Dentistry in Plymouth, England. Patients can take potent steroids and other anti-inflammatory drugs, but the effects of these medications can be inconsistent.
Pertwee has analyzed 17 trials in which MS patients received some form of cannabis or its derivatives. Reports from the patients themselves, who didn’t know if they were getting real cannabinoids or a placebo in most of the trials, show improvements in muscle spasticity, sleep quality, shakiness, sense of well-being and mobility. Pertwee, who is also a consultant for GW Pharmaceuticals – which makes a cannabinoid drug that is delivered in spray form, called Sativex – reviewed the findings in Molecular Neurobiology in 2007.
Sativex was approved in Canada for MS in 2005 after studies (some included in Pertwee’s analysis) showed its success in relieving symptoms of the disease. GW Pharmaceuticals expects clearance for MS treatment in the United Kingdom and Spain this year. Later, the company plans to seek U.S. approval of Sativex for cancer pain.
Zajicek’s team has also compared MS patients who received a placebo with patients receiving either a capsule containing THC or one with THC and CBD. Both of the cannabis-based drugs outperformed a placebo, and the researchers are now working on a multiyear MS trial.
Calming symptoms such as muscle spasticity and pain is useful, Zajicek says, but the true value of cannabinoids may exceed that. “To me, the really exciting stuff is whether these drugs have a much more fundamental role in changing the course of MS over the longer term,” he says. “We’ve got nothing that actually slows progression of the disease.”
Not just a high. By- Seppa, Nathan, Science News, 00368423, 6_19_2010, Vol. 177, Issue 13