GUEST POST: Medical Cannabis and Multiple Sclerosis - What You Should Know

In honor of Multiple Sclerosis Education and Awareness Month, the second article in our series on chronic illness and medical cannabis discusses multiple sclerosis (MS), an illness that currently affects about 400,000 Americans. Medical cannabis is a common treatment for some of the more severe symptoms like neuropathic pain and spasticity associated with multiple sclerosis. In fact, a recent online survey conducted by the National Multiple Sclerosis Society found that 66 percent of respondents reported currently using medical cannabis to help manage their symptoms. Such a statistic merits discussion of the benefits and risks associated with medical cannabis treatment. First, however, let’s take a moment to learn a bit about the disease.

Understanding Multiple Sclerosis

Multiple Sclerosis (MS) is a chronic, debilitating disease that attacks the central nervous system, consisting of the brain, spinal cord and optic nerves and tracts. MS is characterized by a range of symptoms, from mild numbness in the limbs to paralysis or even blindness. Most MS patients typically are diagnosed between the ages of 20 and 50, and the disease shows a male/female preference of 2:3. What’s more, we can’t yet predict how the illness will progress, its severity, or specific symptoms for any one person.

MS is believed to be an autoimmune disease in which the body’s defense system attacks and damages myelin, a substance that surrounds and insulates nerves and is critical for proper conduction of nerve impulses. Once the myelin sheath is damaged, scars may form, and it’s these scars that are thought to be responsible for the symptoms that people with MS experience. Those symptoms include tingling, numbness, painful sensations, slurred speech, and blurred or double vision. Some people experience muscle weakness, poor balance, poor coordination, muscle tightness (spasticity), or paralysis that may be temporary or permanent. Problems with bladder, bowel, or sexual function are common, and inordinate fatigue, the most common symptom, is often a major source of disability.

Some MS patients experience cognitive changes as the disease progresses. About 45-65% of people with MS experience memory loss, difficulty finding words, and trouble concentrating. Approximately 10-15% of people with MS experience more severe cognitive changes. Lastly, mood swings and depression can occur in a large number of patients; in fact, one study indicates that the risk of suicide in the MS population may be seven times that of the general population.

While there are FDA-approved medications available to help slow the progression and relieve the symptoms of MS, none of them are completely effective. As with other chronic illnesses, many people are choosing medical cannabis to manage their symptoms.

Medical Cannabis Research

While research is ongoing, several recent studies have shown evidence that cannabinoids may be beneficial in managing pain and spasticity for those living with MS. One study conducted by the University of Rochester MS Center in New York found that 77% of respondents said that medical cannabis was helpful in managing spasticity and pain, reporting no noticeable side effects. Another 70% said they felt that their quality of life improved while using medical cannabis. Some even reported decreasing their use of other medications used to treat their symptoms.

In an article published last July, Kathy Costello, a nurse practitioner at the Johns Hopkins Multiple Sclerosis Center in Maryland said, “There are potential benefits, but they must be presented with their fair risks. People must make the most informed decisions and choices taking this into consideration.” According to the National MS Society, some of those risks include confusion, cognitive impairment, anxiety and/or paranoia, nausea, vomiting, dry mouth, dry eyes, sedation, increased appetite, headache, impaired balance and coordination, and elevated heart rate. There are also potential risks to the lungs if cannabis is smoked.

As with any other illness or medication, it’s imperative that patients and prospective patients speak with their doctor to determine whether medical cannabis is the right solution for them, how it may affect their existing treatments and medications, and what options are available to them where they live.

Melissa Morante is an owner of ComForCare Home Care and serves as Chief Marketing Officer.

Melissa is an expert in Parkinson’s Disease, working to train the agency’s caregivers on recognizing both motor and non-motor symptoms and how to care for those living with the disease.  She serves on the board of directors for the American Parkinson Disease Association (APDA) South Florida Chapter lending support to those who are living with the disease. Melissa facilitates a support group for family caregivers and those for whom they care.

As a health and wellness aficionado, Melissa believes that a healthy lifestyle and a diet rich in whole foods and regular exercise are the best medicines. Melissa is a certified group fitness instructor with a specialty in senior fitness. She currently volunteers her time leading exercise classes in independent living facilities throughout the area.

About ComForCare

ComForCare Home Care offers private-duty, non-medical home health care that allows people to age comfortably, safely and happily in place. The company has unique expertise in working with those living with Alzheimer’s Disease, dementia, Parkinson’s Disease and other chronic conditions. Services include grooming, hygiene, meal preparation, light housekeeping, transportation, medication reminder and more.

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