More People with MS Turning to Cannabis for Help with Pain, Sleep
A new survey shows high usage rates of cannabinoids like CBD for multiple sclerosis, but most patients are figuring out these new products on their own.
More than 40% of those with multiple sclerosis said they’ve used cannabis products in the past year, according to recently published results from a national survey on pain in people with MS.
And those who turned to products with some combination of compounds derived from the cannabis plant (CBD, or cannabidiol, and THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol) were most likely to try them for help with chronic pain and sleep—two symptoms that are common and often go together in this chronic neurological disease.
It represents an increase from previous studies of CBD/THC use in MS, as more states legalize marijuana use recreationally and/or medically. However, there’s a wide gap between the proportion of people with MS who have used a cannabinoid in the past year (42%) and the proportion who have spoken with their physician about it (only 18%). Furthermore, fewer than 1% of cannabinoid users received information from their provider about the type of cannabinoid product recommended for their symptoms.
“Reasons for the disconnect between respondent use and provider guidance in our sample requires further study, but reinforces a longstanding concern that research focused on the use of cannabinoids for MS symptoms has not caught up with consumer use of these products,” says lead author Tiffany Braley, M.D., M.S., an associate professor of neurology and an MS specialist at Michigan Medicine.
The study included survey responses from more than 1,000 people with a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis from across the nation.
When it comes to selecting a cannabinoid product, survey respondents who had a preference tended to use CBD products, which don’t have the same psychoactive effects of THC and tend to be easy to find online or in stores in many different forms.
Senior author Anna Kratz, Ph.D., an associate professor in the department of Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation, said “patients are looking for guidance from their providers to make informed choices about whether cannabis compounds should be used at all, and if so, which formulations would be most beneficial.”
However, providers still don’t have a lot of good evidence to help them advise patients who plan to explore a cannabinoid for their chronic MS symptoms. It’s frustrating, Braley says, because symptoms like chronic pain and some sleep disturbances in MS can be challenging to treat with existing options, and new, safe, more personalized approaches would be welcomed. “However, provider guidance for patients must be informed by research focused on the benefits and harms of both CBD and THC, and potential mechanisms that underlie the effects of cannabinoids on MS symptoms.” she says.
Braley adds many publications about cannabis in MS, including this one, have had populations that skew female-identifying and white, highlighting a need for more diverse perspectives from racial and ethnic minorities that have been historically underrepresented in MS research.
Paper cited: ” Cannabinoid use among Americans with MS: Current trends and gaps in knowledge.” Multiple Sclerosis Journal – Experimental, Translational and Clinical. DOI: 10.1177/2055217320959816
What Are the Benefits of CBD for Multiple Sclerosis?
Research on CBD for MS is limited, but shows it might reduce pain and spasticity
Kelly Burch is a freelance journalist who has covered health topics for more than 10 years. Her writing has appeared in The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, and more.
Verywell Health articles are reviewed by board-certified physicians and healthcare professionals. These medical reviewers confirm the content is thorough and accurate, reflecting the latest evidence-based research. Content is reviewed before publication and upon substantial updates. Learn more.
Emily Dashiell, ND, is a licensed naturopathic doctor who has worked in group and private practice settings over the last 15 years. She is in private practice in Santa Monica, California.
Multiple sclerosis (MS) is an autoimmune disease that causes a range of symptoms, including fatigue, cognitive impairment, and muscle weakness. MS can manifest in many ways, but patients have one thing in common: the symptoms of MS have a big impact on their quality of life.
To manage symptoms, some MS patients turn to cannabidiol, or CBD, a non-psychoactive compound found in the cannabis plant. Scientists are still researching the benefits of CBD for people with MS, but early indications show that CBD might help control some MS symptoms, such as pain and muscle stiffness.
This article will review what you should know about CBD and multiple sclerosis, including the potential benefits, safety concerns, and optimal dosage.
Verywell / Michela Buttignol
Immune System and Multiple Sclerosis
Multiple sclerosis is an autoimmune disease. That means that the symptoms of the disease occur because the immune system is attacking healthy cells in the way that it’s supposed to attack viruses and other pathogens.
In MS, the immune system targets the myelin sheath, a protective coating that wraps around nerve cells in the spinal cord and brain. When the immune system attacks this barrier, it causes inflammation and damage, which can impair the nerve signaling that facilitates movement, breathing, thinking, and more.
The severity of MS symptoms varies, depending on the location of the attack and the extent of the damage to the myelin sheath, but they most often include fatigue, muscle weakness or stiffness, and cognitive dysfunction.
Cannabinoids and the Immune System
Cannabinoids are a group of compounds found in the cannabis plant. The two main cannabinoids are THC (the psychoactive ingredients in marijuana) and CBD (which does not have a psychoactive component).
The body processes cannabinoids via cannabinoid receptors, which are found in the brain and in immune cells. This is all part of the endocannabinoid system, which regulates inflammation, immune function, motor control, pain, and other bodily functions commonly affected by MS.
This connection helps explain why CBD can be beneficial for MS. Cannabinoids have been shown to reduce inflammation and regulate immune response. CBD does this without mind-altering properties, making it appealing to people looking for relief from MS symptoms without the “high” of marijuana.
Benefits of CBD for MS
In a recent meta-analysis, researchers concluded that cannabinoids, including CBD, are “probably effective” at alleviating certain symptoms of MS, including pain and abnormal muscle tightness (spasticity), but “probably not effective” for treating muscle tremors or incontinence.
Additional research supported using CBD for MS. Here are some key findings:
- A 2018 scientific review found that CBD supplementation reduced pain, fatigue, inflammation, depression, and spasticity in people with MS, while improving mobility. The authors concluded that recommending CBD supplementation for people with MS would be advisable.
- A 2014 scientific review found that Sativex (nabiximols), a CBD nasal spray, can help reduce pain, spasticity, and frequent urination in patients with MS.
- Two different 2021 medical reviews found that in animal models, CBD helps regulate the immune system, reducing the autoimmune response that causes MS symptoms. More research is needed, but in the future this may mean that cannabis-derived medications and CBD could be used to treat the progression of MS, not just the symptoms.
Are There Any Side Effects?
CBD is generally considered safe, and it does not have mind-altering properties. A dose of up to 300 mg daily of CBD is safe for up to six months. Higher doses are safe for a shorter amount of time.
However, like any other supplements or medication, CBD may have side effects in some individuals. These may include:
- Low blood pressure
- Damage to the liver
In addition, CBD may interact with many other prescription drugs. It’s best to speak with your healthcare provider before supplementing with CBD, especially if you are pregnant or breastfeeding. Most doctors who treat MS are familiar with CBD, since at least 20% of MS patients are currently using CBD.
CBD is legal for consumption in the United States, but cannabis products that contain THC are illegal at the federal level. Be sure to understand the legal and professional implications of using CBD, especially if you are regularly screened for drug use.
Keep in mind that the Food and Drug Administration does not oversee or regulate any CBD supplements, so it’s important to purchase CBD products from a reputable source.
How to Use CBD for MS
CBD is available in many different forms, including topicals, tinctures, edibles, and nasal sprays.
You’ll also have to decide whether you want to take a full or broad-spectrum CBD, which contains other cannabinoids, or a CBD isolate, which contains just cannabidiol. Limited research suggests there may be a benefit to the “entourage effect”: It’s believed that having other cannabinoids present may make CBD more effective.
Consulting your healthcare provider can help you decide where to start with CBD supplementation. They can offer insight as to what has worked for other patients and guide you toward an appropriate dose of CBD.
How to Buy CBD for MS
It’s important to deal with reputable dispensaries when purchasing CBD for MS. Here’s what you should consider when buying CBD to treat MS:
- The legal status of CBD in your state, including whether you need a medical cannabis card
- The possible impact of taking CBD on your professional licenses or other areas in your life
- Your goals in taking CBD, and the symptoms you would most like to address
- Whether you would like a CBD isolate or a full-spectrum product that contains other cannabinoids
- Whether the retailer is licensed in your state
- Where the product was sourced (grown)
- Whether the product has a COA, or certificate of analysis, which shows the chemical composition of a substance
A Word from Verywell
MS can have a huge impact on your quality of life, which is why so many people look for relief from MS symptoms. The research around CBD and MS is very promising: It shows that some people experience reduced pain and spasticity when they use CBD supplements.
In the future, CBD-derived medication may even be used to control the progression of the disease by reducing inflammation.
Unfortunately, use of CBD for MS is still in its infancy, and there’s a clear need for more research. For now, it’s best to talk with your doctor and trusted peers when deciding whether CBD is right for you. Don’t be shy about speaking up: Research has shown that up to 60% of MS patients are currently using cannabis and 90% would consider it.
You shouldn’t feel any shame or hesitation about investigating this treatment option. However, it’s important to understand any legal and professional implications for where you live, especially if you use a product containing THC.
Although there is a lot of promise for CBD to treat MS, there is no FDA-approved treatment. Using it in combination with more traditional medically sanctioned treatment is likely a good course of action.
Frequently Asked Questions
Research indicates that CBD likely helps with muscle spasticity in people with MS. A UK-based study found that physicians did not measure a large improvement in spasticity in people taking CBD versus a supplement. However, the people taking CBD reported a reduction in spasticity compared with those taking a placebo. Because of that, the Multiple Sclerosis Society says that CBD is likely effective for spasticity.
CBD is generally considered safe, and some research shows that it likely helps treat pain and spasticity caused by MS. However, CBD is not FDA approved for treating MS or its symptoms. You should speak with your healthcare provider about using CBD to treat MS.
Much of the research on using CBD for MS pain has been done using oral supplements and nasal sprays. Some people also report benefits from smoking CBD flowers or cannabis. It’s best to speak with your healthcare provider and consider the legal standing of CBD and cannabis in your state as you decide how best to use CBD to treat MS pain.