EducationMultiple sclerosis and therapeutic cannabinoid treatment

Multiple sclerosis and therapeutic cannabinoid treatment

7 min read

Sam North

Multiple sclerosis and therapeutic cannabinoid treatment


The medicinal cannabis landscape is shifting in the United Kingdom (albeit slowly), and with this shift comes increased options for people suffering from multiple sclerosis. Research into the effects that cannabis may have as a natural addition to traditional treatments (that can cause some pretty serious side effects) has been severely stifled in the last century. This has been due to the legal standing of the plant, but that is also slowly but surely going through a positive transformation.

While still classed as a class B controlled substance under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, in November 2018 new legislation was introduced that finally made medicinal cannabis a reality in the UK. This has opened the door to new treatment options for patients suffering from MS.

Understanding multiple sclerosis

Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a complex, debilitating, sometimes disabling condition of the brain and spinal cord (CNS) that can also have a negative impact on the functioning of the optic nerve. It comes with a wide range of possible symptoms -

  • Muscular spasm, stiffness, or tremors
  • Speech slurring
  • Vision impairment
  • Incontinence issues
  • Numbness and weakness in the limbs
  • Balance and vertigo issues, that can lead to difficulty walking
  • Cognitive decline and memory issues
  • Depression, anxiety, or mood swings
  • Fatigue

Most people with MS go through a relapsing-remitting cycle, where the symptoms appear and then recede for periods. This is known as secondary-progressive MS, however, the disease can also present as a gradual but steady onset of symptoms where the MS causes long-term neurological degeneration.

Current treatments for MS

MS, unfortunately, currently has no cure. And as the symptoms are so wide-ranging, the treatment options are focused on managing the different symptoms and attempting to slow down or stop further possible damage. There truly is no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to treating MS. 

Many patients report adverse reactions to traditional pharmaceutical treatment options, including DMTs (disease-modifying therapies) such as alemtuzumab. Beta-interferons. HSCT (haematopoietic stem cell transplantation) is also available for MS sufferers, which is an intense chemotherapy treatment option that essentially resets the immune system and then regrows it using the patient's own stem cells.

Such treatments also come with an array of possible side effects, ranging from nausea and vomiting to a possible increased long-term risk of developing infections, cancer, autoimmune conditions, and fertility issues.

Due to the variability of the effectiveness of traditional treatments, and the side effects associated with them, many people with MS are looking for other options that are effective in helping manage and reduce their symptoms.

How cannabinoids help with MS

Cannabinoids are naturally occurring compounds found in cannabis (specifically phytocannabinoids). At the time of writing, a total of 113 phytocannabinoids have been isolated from cannabis and hemp plants, with many more expected to be isolated in the coming years.

What exactly constitutes a cannabinoid?

To answer this question, we have to discuss the endocannabinoid system (ECS). The ECS is a complex biological system that helps maintain homeostasis throughout the body, and it is linked to many physiological and psychological functions.

It consists of:

  • endocannabinoids (cannabinoids that are naturally produced by the body) 
  • cannabinoid receptors (CB1 and CB2) 
  • and enzymes that synthesize and break down cannabinoids. 

These endocannabinoids interact with the cannabinoid receptors, allowing for the regulation of various processes.

The phytocannabinoids produced by cannabis also have the ability to interact with the CB1 and CB2 receptors, along with other vital human systems.  These interactions may provide both therapeutic and intoxicating effects, and it is due to the fact that these chemicals can interact with the ECS that they are classed as cannabinoids.

The primary phytocannabinoids found in cannabis are delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD). 

THC, the main psychoactive ingredient in cannabis, binds to both the CB1 and CB2 receptors, which is the reason researchers believe that it may have some powerful effects, both physical and mental.

CBD works differently; it is totally non-intoxicating and has a much weaker interaction with CB1 and CB2 receptors. The potential positive effects we are starting to see in studies may be explained by its interaction with numerous pathways throughout not only the ECS but also other biological systems.

Cannabinoids and MS

These two cannabinoids (THC/CBD) have been the most thoroughly studied of all the phytocannabinoids, and both show promise when it comes to the reduction of symptoms in people with MS.

One paper, titled “Cannabinoids for treatment of spasticity and other symptoms related to multiple sclerosis” reported on a clinical trial that involved 667 patients with stable multiple sclerosis and muscle spasticity. This study showed a marked improvement in spasticity in 61% of patients that were treated with THC.

Another research paper, which aimed to “highlight the main findings reported in the literature about the relevance of cannabinoid drugs in the management and treatment of MS” concludes with the following findings. While more research is needed before we can definitively say that cannabinoids are effective for treating MS symptoms, there is a need for alternative treatments. The current options are only “partially effective and having risks of side effects not easily tolerated by patients”.

The research points to the possibility that balanced CBD/THC medicinal cannabis options may prove to offer an effective reduction of MS symptoms. The array of products now available on the medicinal cannabis market that offer both THC and CBD in one single dose is wide-ranging, and not restricted to only oral sprays. We now have edibles, topicals, extracts, and flower options.

As we move forward into a more accepting and open social/political climate regarding medicinal cannabis and its application as a therapeutic tool, we can expect to see many more clinical trials and peer-reviewed papers being released in the coming years. These will help us to further understand how cannabinoids can be effectively taken to control the symptoms of MS, and other diseases and illnesses.

Are cannabinoids without the risk of any side effects?

No, all treatment options come with at least some small risk of unwanted side effects, and this is also true for cannabinoids. Some potential side effects of using cannabinoids are:

  • An altered sense of time
  • Changes in mood
  • Difficulty with problem-solving
  • Memory impairment
  • Headaches
  • Sore, red eyes
  • Dry mouth

But even with these sometimes uncomfortable side effects, the potential therapeutic and medicinal benefits of cannabinoids look to outweigh the risks in many cases. As with any medical treatment or supplement, it is critical that before you consider making any changes to your current treatment plan, a thorough and in-depth discussion with your doctor is necessary.


While the need for more research is ever present, cannabinoids show immense promise for one day becoming a viable treatment option for those suffering from MS, and other ailments. A balanced dose of THC and CBD has been the most effective option so far, with evidence showing that these two cannabinoids interact with the endocannabinoid system in a manner that may reduce spasticity, inflammation, and pain associated with MS.

Accessing medical cannabis can be challenging due to the stigma surrounding it. However, Releaf makes it simple with our tailored monthly packages, specialist consultations for medical cannabis, and a unique medical cannabis card for protection, all based on your cannabis prescription.

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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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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