A new study claims to have found evidence that smoking marijuana really does relieve symptoms of multiple sclerosis (MS). Patients have long said that marijuana helps relieve MS symptoms, but the claim had not been subjected to scientific test.
According to the new study, MS patients' muscle spasticity and perception of pain decreased after smoking marijuana.
LA Times reports the study, published on Monday, in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, involved 30 MS patient who suffered from muscle spasticity involving stiffness, spasms and pain. The Washington Post reports that the patients were of average age of about 51 and most had spasticity that had not responded well to treatment.
Nearly half of of the subjects used a cane or walker, with about 20 percent needing a wheelchair.
The subjects were divided into two groups. Each group was served marijuana (provided by the National Institute on Drug Abuse) and after a period of 11 days during which no marijuana was taken, served placebo marijuana. According to The Washington Post, the participants smoked marijuana cigarette once a day for three days, averaging four puffs per cigarette. After 11 days, the process was repeated but with participants now smoking a placebo.
Approximately forty-five minutes after smoking placebo or marijuana joint, a health professional administered a test of muscle tone in the elbows, hips and knees. A walking-speed test, a pain inventory and a test assessing cognitive symptoms were also administered, LA Times reports. According to The Washington Post, the professional used a standardized scale to evaluate muscle tone.
Reuters reports the study, published on Monday, found that for the 30 MS patients with muscle cramps, a few days of smoking marijuana brought significant relief. The Washington Post reports participants had bout 30 percent less spasticity after taking marijuana than after taking placebo and reported 50 percent less pain.
According to The Huffington Post, the researchers from the University of California, San Diego, said that while people with MS who smoked cannabis had decreased pain and muscle tightness the relief came at a "cost" to the patient. Most importantly, it led to problems with focus and attention. According to WebMD, the researcher of the study, Dr. Anthony Feinstein, of the University of Toronto, said: "Whatever benefits patients feel they might be getting from smoking marijuana might come at the cost of further cognitive compromise."
Reuters reports the human body naturally produces cannabinoids, a group of chemicals found in marijuana. Studies have suggested that cannabinoid receptors in our cells are involved in regulating muscle spasticity. But according to Reuters, evidence that pot smoking helps relieves spasticity and pain have been anecdotal. Dr. Jody Corey-bloom, lead researcher of the University of California, San Diego, said: "We've heard from patients that marijuana helps their spasticity, but I think a lot us thought, ‘Well, it's probably just making you feel good.'... I think this study shows that yes, (marijuana) may help with spasticity, but at a cost."
The team found that the "cost" included fatigue and dizziness in some users and slowed down mental or cognitive skills in others.
About 400,000 people in the United States have MS. The Huffington Post reports that the National Institute of Health describes MS as autoimmune disease of the brain and spinal cord that occurs when the myelin sheath protecting nerve fibers break down, causing symptoms of cognitive problems, muscle weakness, disturbed vision, strange touch sensations, balance and coordination problems.
Reuters reports Nicholas LaRocca, vice president of healthcare delivery and policy research at the National MS Society, who was not involved in the study, said: "Spasticity is a big problem for many people with MS, and the current medications don't necessarily work for everyone. But smoking marijuana does not appear to be a long-term solution, because of the cognitive effects."
According to LaRocca, with MS patients already at risk of "cognitive changes," effect of long-tern use of marijuana concerns health officials
Corey-Bloom admitted that one of the limitations of the current study is that "blinding" people to the fact that they were smoking marijuana or placebo is difficult because it creates a high felling smokers recognize. According to Reuters, in the study, 17 out of 30 were able to correctly guess whether they were using marijuana or a placebo.
LaRocca said: "It's pretty clear that the patients were not really blinded. What effects that might have had on the results is unclear."
But Corey-Bloom explained that since an independent person who did not know whether the patients were smoking marijuana or placebo rated spasticity using a standard scale, the results should not have been influenced by the fact that the patients were not truly "blinded."
She also pointed that since the study looked at the effect over only a few days, "We can't say anything about long-term effects."