BlogMultiple sclerosis week: Exploring cannabis-based treatments for MS

Multiple sclerosis week: Exploring cannabis-based treatments for MS

11 min read

Sam North

Exploring cannabis-based treatments for MS

This week is Multiple Sclerosis (MS) Awareness Week, where we shine a spotlight on this chronic disease that affects more than 130,000 people in the UK (and millions worldwide), and see how the change to UK medical cannabis laws is opening up new treatment options.

Contents

Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a condition that targets the central nervous system.

The cells within the central nervous system are encased in a protective coating known as the myelin sheath, which is very much like the plastic outer on electrical wiring.

MS is classified as an autoimmune disease. Autoimmune diseases cause your immune system to confuse foreign invaders and your own cells. Rather than combating infections or viruses, the immune system mistakenly attacks the nerve cells, damaging the myelin. This disrupts the transmission of signals to and from the brain, resulting in these 'messages' being delayed, distorted, or in severe cases, completely blocked.

There is no known cure for MS, but there are conventional pharmacological treatments that can help manage its symptoms. For patients who do not respond to these treatments, the options for alternative therapies are quite limited.

But with medical cannabis becoming a legal reality here in the UK almost six years back, there is one more card in the deck for patients to consider.

So,

  • Can medical cannabis help with managing the symptoms of MS?
  • What are the available cannabis treatments for MS?
  • How can MS patients receive a medical cannabis prescription?
  • What are the potential risks and benefits of taking cannabis for MS?

Is cannabis legal for MS treatment in the UK?

Cannabis-based medicines are legal in the UK and have been since November 2018.

There are two routes for MS patients to explore if they're considering cannabis-based treatments - one being through the NHS, the other through private cannabis clinics.

MS patients who are experiencing muscle spasticity are among the select few who may potentially receive a prescription through the NHS, along with cancer patients battling nausea caused by chemotherapy and patients with one of two rare forms of epilepsy.

Simple, right?

Not really. UK cannabis laws are still convoluted.

Although specialists working with the NHS can legally prescribe one cannabis-based treatment option (Sativex) for MS, it is still pretty uncommon due to the strict medical cannabis regulations set in place by NICE (National Institute for Health and Care Excellence). The NHS can only offer patients 'licenced' medicines, while private clinics (like Releaf) have more flexibility in prescribing unlicensed cannabis-based treatments.

What's the difference between licensed and unlicensed cannabis-based treatments?

Licensed cannabis-based treatments are those that have been formally approved by regulatory bodies, such as the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) in the UK. These treatments have undergone rigorous clinical trials to demonstrate their safety, efficacy, and quality.

Unlicensed cannabis-based treatments, on the other hand, haven't been subjected to the same level of scrutiny by the MHRA, but that doesn't mean they're unsafe or haven't undergone rigorous testing and clinical trials. All unlicensed treatments offered by Releaf come from reputable sources and have been administered safely and effectively in other countries.

How do MS patients obtain medical cannabis in the UK?

Most patients, even those eligible for an NHS medical cannabis prescription, end up turning to private clinics.

Why?

Securing a prescription through the NHS is time-consuming, and in the end, many get denied.

Getting a prescription through a private clinic (like Releaf) for medical cannabis to help with the symptoms of MS is a straightforward process. Simply book an appointment with one of our specialist doctors, have a consultation and discuss your symptoms, medical history, and potential treatment options available.

If the doctor believes that cannabis-based treatment can help in your case, and as long as you have already tried a few conventional approaches, you will most likely be eligible.

What types of cannabis-based treatments are available for MS?

Medical cannabis (or cannabis-based treatment options) comes in all shapes and sizes.

Sativex, the licenced medicine offered by the NHS, contains a balanced amount of a synthetic form of both THC (the psychoactive cannabinoid) and CBD (the non-psychoactive cannabinoid), but so do other unlicensed cannabis-based treatments.

Unlicensed treatments prescribed through private clinics can vary significantly in terms of their THC and CBD content.

Some products have higher levels of THC, which is responsible for the 'high' associated with recreational marijuana use (along with a bunch of therapeutic benefits), while others will be CBD dominant and may contain no THC whatsoever.

There are many unlicensed CBPMs (cannabis-based products for medical use) that contain a balanced amount of CBD and THC. These most commonly come in the form of a medical cannabis oil, which can be administered in the same way as Sativex (under the tongue), but there are also creams, capsules, edibles, and dried cannabis flower available.

What does the science say about medical cannabis for MS?

In 2017, the UK MS Society published a report looking into the efficacy of cannabis-based medicines for MS. This was a landmark piece of research here in the UK and clearly highlighted the changing attitudes towards medicinal cannabis in the medical community.

The report found that:

  • Individuals with Multiple Sclerosis (MS) who were administered cannabis-based products reported a greater improvement in spasticity symptoms compared to those who received a placebo. This observation has been recently validated by a comprehensive review conducted by the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM).
  • Cannabis products could improve the quality of life for about 10,000 people with MS.
  • Both AAN and NASEM reviews found cannabis-based products effective for MS pain, including neuropathic pain (burning or pins and needles sensation) and spasm-related pain. Cannabis products worked well for pain reported by MS patients and for pain assessed with clinical measures.

Two earlier studies back up these findings.

One placebo-controlled trial, which involved 667 patients with stable multiple sclerosis and muscle spasticity, found that:

"There was evidence of a treatment effect on patient-reported spasticity and pain, with improvement in spasticity reported in 61%"

The other, titled "Cannabinoids in the management of spasticity associated with multiple sclerosis", concluded that:

"Current treatments of MS are partially effective and have risks of side effects not easily tolerated by patients, the development of new synthetic endocannabinoids or cannabinoid-derived drugs could represent an alternative strategy to pursue."

That last point is one worth exploring a little further.

While, yes, there is a range of conventional pharmaceuticals designed to help with the spasticity and pain that MS sufferers have to deal with day to day, most come with the risk of heavy side effects and even dependence.

Not to mention, some patients find that these drugs simply don't work for them.

Can medical cannabis help with other MS symptoms?

The two primary symptoms that medical cannabis has been studied to help within the context of MS are spasticity and pain. But there are also secondary symptoms of MS that may be improved by medical cannabis treatment, such as:

Should you take cannabis-based medicines for MS?

The decision to try any new treatment should be made in consultation with your clinical team, and only after:

  • At least two 'conventional' avenues have been explored without success.
  • You've had an honest and open conversation with your doctor (or a medical cannabis specialist) about the potential risks and benefits of cannabis-based treatment.
  • You've done your own research and feel comfortable with the idea of adding a plant-based medicine to your current treatment plan.

The last thing you should consider is jumping head-first into using a medical cannabis product without knowing what you're getting yourself into and how it might interact with any current treatments you're taking. 

That said, cannabis-based medicines for MS, especially ones that contain a balanced ratio of CBD/THC, have been proven effective in multiple studies, and many patients have found relief from their pain and spasm symptoms with the help of medical cannabis options.

If you feel that your current clinical team is a little 'behind the times' regarding medicinal cannabis, and you would like to speak with a specialist that has experience prescribing cannabis-based treatments for MS, you might want to consider speaking with a doctor that has an interest in this area.

Here at Releaf, we have a team of doctors that are experienced in prescribing cannabis-based treatments for a range of conditions, including MS.

Check out our free eligibility checker to take the first step. It takes less than 30 seconds to complete, and you're under no obligation to book a consultation with us

FAQs

Can medical cannabis cure MS?

No, medical cannabis does not cure MS.

It can be used as a complementary form of treatment to help manage the pain and spasticity caused by MS, but it does not cure the underlying disease.

Is medical cannabis legal for MS patients in the UK?

Yes, medical cannabis is legal in UK, and has been since 2018.

Are there any potential side effects of taking medical cannabis for MS?

Like most medications, cannabis-based medicines can have side effects, but they are typically mild and well-tolerated.

These include:

  • Red eyes
  • Dry mouth
  • Dizziness
  • Racing heartbeat
  • Changes in blood pressure
  • Anxiety

These side effects are typically short-lived and can usually be managed by adjusting the dosage size/timing.

Does medical cannabis cause dependence issues?

It can, but typically only when THC is present, and it is taken in large amounts and/or over long periods.

The role of medical cannabis is to reduce and control symptoms, not to cause intoxication. 

Your prescribing specialist will work with you to find the most suitable dose for your individual needs.

Can I smoke medical cannabis?

No, smoking prescribed cannabis flower is illegal in the UK.

Patients are legally allowed to use a vaporiser to take their prescribed medical cannabis.

You can also take it in capsules, oil drops, oral sprays, topical creams and balms, or transdermal patches.

What is the future of cannabis treatments for MS in the UK?

Cannabis-based treatment options are here to stay in the UK, and the future couldn't be brighter, especially for people battling MS.

No longer stripped of the right to explore every avenue of potential treatment options, people are now turning to medical cannabis as a way to improve their quality of life and reduce the often-debilitating symptoms of MS.

The amount of research being poured into this fascinating plant is increasing every single year, and we envision a future where medical cannabis may potentially be an integral part of MS treatment plans, not just the last resort.

If you, or a loved one, are struggling with MS and want to explore the potential benefits of medical cannabis, we've got your back. Our experienced team is here to help you navigate the complexities of cannabis-based treatments, and we'll work with you to find the most suitable form of treatment for your individual needs.

Want to learn more?

Check out our blog and education sections, and feel free to reach out anytime.

It is important to seek medical advice before starting any new treatments. The patient advisors at Releaf are available to provide expert advice and support. Alternatively, click here to book a consultation with one of our specialist doctors.

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Authors

Sam North, a seasoned writer with over five years' experience and expertise in medicinal cannabis, brings clarity to complex concepts, focusing on education and informed use.

Our articles are written by experts and reviewed by medical professionals or compliance specialists. Adhering to stringent sourcing guidelines, we reference peer-reviewed studies and scholarly research. View our editorial policy.


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How do dry herb vaporisers work?

For thousands of years, the main method of cannabis consumption has been smoking. But in recent years, as medical cannabis has become more prominent and consumers are generally looking for healthier alternatives, the dry herb vaporiser has been on the rise. So, how do they work? And importantly, are dry herb vaporisers worth it?

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