Does Cannabis Offer a New Hope for Spasticity?


by Trey Reckling (originally published in The Fresh Toast)

Could cannabis be the new, improved answer for patients suffering from spasticity?

The roughly 12 million people worldwide who are thought to suffer from the condition would love to hear that news. Spasticity, like it sounds, refers to a variety of involuntary muscle spasms and stiffness. It is a very common symptom of MS but can also be the result of other conditions like cerebral palsy, stroke and brain or spinal cord trauma. 

Using cannabis for calming muscles is not a new approach. In the mid 1840’s, before prohibition, physicians prescribed cannabis tinctures and extracts for inflammation, muscle spasms, delirium tremens (DT’s) and a host of other conditions. 

The traditional modern treatments for spasticity includes use of muscle relaxants like baclofen, injecting people with botulism and physical therapy. Sometimes the situation is so dire that the patient even resorts to surgery to implant muscle relaxant pumps and to permanently sever the roots of nerves.

Times and approaches change. Since 2010, Canadian patients have had access to Sativex, a prescription combination of THC and CBD in a peppermint flavored oral spray. A large study looked at the use of Sativex by over 900 patients in the UK, Germany and Switzerland with treatment-resistant multiple sclerosis (MS) spasticity. The patients were given the drug for daily dosings and evaluated to see how well they maintained their therapy regimen. 68% of patients voluntarily stayed on their cannabis medicine at least one year. An additional 207 Spanish patients in specialized MS centers had equally successful “continuation rates” rates of staying on the cannabis based medicine. 

Additionally, German researchers studied 16 young patients ranging in age from 1 to 26 with “complex neurological conditions with spasticity”. The subjects were given daily drops of a synthetic cannabinoid, dronabinol (Marinol). Researchers concluded that, “in the majority of pediatric palliative patients, the treatment with dronabinol showed promising effects in treatment resistant spasticity.” 

It’s not magic but may feel that way to people whose conditions have been hard to manage and have not had success with other therapeutic approaches. THC is believed to engage the endocannabinoid system to block inflammation and improve the natural communication between muscles and nerves. Some researchers believe that this reduction in inflammation can even slow the progression of the disease and the increasing disability it creates.

The good news is that the word is spreading about the potential impact of cannabis on spasticity, particularly among the MS patient community. In Canada alone, one in five MS patients currently use medical marijuana in some form. For these patients and others who experience the debilitating condition of spasticity, this is hope, and hope is profoundly important.