Exploring the Effect of Cannabis Use on Multiple Sclerosis Patients in Colorado

It’s no secret that the landscape of cannabis legality has dramatically changed in the last decade. As a result, researchers and clinicians across the country are taking a closer look at cannabis as a potential therapeutic.

One example of this comes from a new study recently published in the journal Multiple Sclerosis and Related Disorders. This study explores the potential for cannabis to treat Multiple Sclerosis (MS) symptoms in patients living in Colorado, where cannabis is legal for both recreational and medicinal use.

Taking advantage of the legal status of cannabis in Colorado, the researchers profiled patients with MS and characterized their cannabis use patterns.

Cannabis and Multiple Sclerosis

Multiple Sclerosis (MS) is a disease in which the immune system attacks and degrades the protective covering of nerve cells.

The symptoms vary widely from person to person. They can include numbness or weakness in the limbs, loss of vision, pain, tremors, loss of coordination, slurred speech, fatigue, and problems with bowel and bladder function.

Evidence from both clinical data and observational survey studies have consistently demonstrated that cannabis may improve MS symptoms like pain and muscle spasticity.

Building upon previous research, the main goals of the new study were to assess:

  • How MS patients perceived cannabis use
  • How the patients used cannabis, focusing on the recreational vs. medicinal use, the cannabinoid profiles of the products used, and the means of ingestion (smoking, vaporizing, consuming edibles, etc.)
  • Lastly, and most importantly, how were the patients’ MS symptoms affected by cannabis

Surveying Patients with Multiple Sclerosis in Colorado

Patients with MS were approached at the Rocky Mountain Multiple Sclerosis Center (RMMSC) at the University of Colorado.

The researchers chose the patients at random. Survey participants had to meet two criteria: they had been previously diagnosed with MS, and they were between 18-89 years old.

The outcome was that 251 patients completed the extensive survey questionnaire. Survey participants remained anonymous.

The Survey Results

Of the respondents, the researchers identified 38% as cannabis users, meaning they had used cannabis in the last 12 months.

Interestingly, cannabis users had a higher disability index (a metric used in MS diagnosis) than non-cannabis users. However, there were no other significant sociodemographic differences between cannabis users and non-users.

Smoking (30%), vaporizing (22%) and edibles (22%) were the most prevalent ingestion methods chosen by patients. 79% of cannabis users used cannabis dispensaries.

53% of cannabis users had limited experience with cannabis before their MS diagnosis. These patients tended to prefer CBD-only products.

Patients who preferred CDB-only products were more likely to categorize their cannabis used as strictly medicinal and were less likely to smoke cannabis flower.

The most common symptoms that patients used cannabis for were pain, insomnia, and spasticity/muscle tightness. These results were similar between both CDB-only and THC-only cannabis users.

The most commonly reported negative side effects were slowed thinking, weight gain, and decreased attention. However, a majority of users reported no negative side effects.

The most common reasons cited by non-users for not using cannabis were lack of information or knowledge, negative side effects, its legal status (despite being legal in the state of Colorado), and not being able to afford it.

What Can We Learn?

Legalization Changes Minds

One big takeaway from this study is that when states enact more sensible cannabis legislation, patients are more open to trying cannabis.

For example, in this study, 38% of the total survey respondents said that they used cannabis for their MS symptoms. This number is much higher than the 17% of MS patients across North America that reported using cannabis for their MS symptoms.

Luckily, attitudes regarding medicinal cannabis are changing nationwide. A national survey study found that among youth diagnosed with MS, a whopping 74% reported they would consider using cannabis to treat their symptoms, and an even larger 95% wanted to see more research conducted exploring cannabis and MS.

Cannabis Can Replace Pharmaceuticals

The Colorado survey also shows that cannabis can be a safe alternative to traditional pharmaceuticals. In fact, the survey found that, among participants, cannabis was being used for symptoms like pain and muscle spasticity more frequently than pain-specific pharmaceuticals like Baclofen and Gabapentin.

Additionally, cannabis appears to be better tolerated than some pharmaceuticals among patients with MS. In this study, 79% of cannabis users reported no adverse side-effects. However, it’s important to note that self-reported data regarding side-effects should be taken with a grain of salt.

Legalization Brings Choice

Lastly, legalization brings more choice and better quality control to patients. With cannabis available legally, a much wider variety of products are available to patients. This allows patients to consume cannabis orally as opposed to smoking or vaporizing. It also allows patients to experiment and choose different ratios of CBD to THC.

Commercially produced cannabis products are also subject to higher quality control standards. Therefore, cannabis products will have less variability and patients will be able to consistently and reliably dose themselves for treatment.

What’s Next?

Cannabis is clearly favored by many MS patients, but more rigorously controlled, double-blind studies are required before it can be prescribed by physicians.

Future studies should focus on evaluating MS symptom effects, side effects of varying cannabinoid doses, and the efficacy of different ingestion methods.

With additional research, cannabis or cannabis-derived compounds like CBD can be used to improve the quality of life for those who have Multiple Sclerosis.

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