How medical marijuana helps MS sufferers

In Feature Stories by Dave Gordon

Marijuana’s health benefits extend to people suffering from Multiple Sclerosis (MS), but how exactly do these patients see their symptoms lessen with medical cannabis? Here, The Medical Marijuana Review shares stories from MS sufferers who couldn’t picture life without marijuana as medicine.

Diagnosed with chronic progressive MS in 1992 at the age of 28, wheelchair-bound Alison Myrden says that no other drug – legal or illegal – has been able to reduce the ongoing, 25-year-long “violent pain” in her face like marijuana. She found this salvation after a drug regimen of “thousands of pills a day,” including morphine.

“None of that worked, so I went back to medical marijuana,” says the retired law enforcement officer from Burlington, Ontario. She has been a speaker for LEAP (Law Enforcement Against Prohibition) since 2004, with the support of many officers. She was one of Canada’s first legally licensed medical cannabis users in 1994.

“They all believe my fight is worth it. They’re wasting their time fighting the war on drugs,” Myrden says.

A disease of the nervous system, MS can cause a range of symptoms such as muscle spasms and debilitating pain, according to the MS Society of Canada. They say about 100,000 people in Canada suffer from the disease, for which there is no known cure.

In May, a U.S. study found smoked cannabis could be an effective treatment for spasticity, a disabling symptom of multiple sclerosis. “We found that smoked cannabis was superior to placebo in reducing symptoms and pain in patients with treatment-resistant spasticity, or excessive muscle contractions,” said study author Jody Corey-Bloom, M.D., Ph.D., professor of neurosciences and director of the Multiple Sclerosis Center at UC San Diego.

Patients rely on drugs to help keep their symptoms at bay

Heather Woods, of Winnipeg, uses “cannabis butter” for leg and full-body spasms. She has been suffering from MS for a decade, since the age of 40, and has used medical marijuana up to eight times daily for the last four years. For fatigue, she takes an inhalable cannabis-spray.

MS sufferer Heather Woods

MS sufferer Heather Woods

Still, there is a litany of pharmaceutical drugs available for the MS patient. The downside, however, is that the side effects include headaches, liver enzyme elevations, a spike in blood pressure, and heart-rate reduction – and a hefty $31,000 bill annually, Woods points out.

“The difference between pharmaceuticals and medical marijuana is vast,” says Woods. “For leg spasms the pharmaceuticals just put you out, and are very hard on my digestive system. These drugs just add to the discomfort and fatigue I already suffer.”

Marijuana relieves her pain, she says, without any digestive issues. Moreover, pharmaceuticals (in her experience) have caused insomnia.

Despite these and other success stories, the MS Society of Canada keeps its distance from the issue.

Karen Lee, Vice President of Research, provided the following statement: “We respect the personal healthcare choices of people living with MS. There is currently insufficient data to recommend marijuana … as a treatment for MS symptoms. However, research is continuing to find out the effect of marijuana in treating spasticity and pain.”

Dr. Barry Pakes, a Toronto-based public health specialist and Program Director of the Global Health Education Initiative, says, “Bottom line is that some people use it for pain and spasticity, but there is no evidence that it is effective over and above its euphoric effects. Medical marijuana probably has some limited utility … but really not likely for MS.”

The Canadian Medical Association issued a press release in June, saying, “Asking physicians to prescribe drugs that have not been clinically tested runs contrary to their training and ethics … akin to asking them to work blindfolded and potentially jeopardize the safety of patients.”

Concluding the statement, Dr. Anna Reid, President of the CMA, added: “The use of medical marijuana has grown because there aren’t better treatments for people battling chronic pain. This is an area that definitely needs greater attention.”

Top photo courtesy Alison Myrden/Embedded photo courtesy Heather Woods 



gordonDave Gordon is a freelance writer in Toronto. His work can be found in the New York Times, Baltimore Sun, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Toronto Star, National Post and others.