Spasticity and Cannabis: What Five Prominent Studies Have Concluded

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Among the cannabis plant’s extensive list of promising medical benefits is its scientifically demonstrated ability to relieve spasticity, a condition that commonly affects patients with spinal cord injury, multiple sclerosis (MS), cerebral palsy and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), among other ailments.

Patients who experience spasticity suffer from muscular stiffness and difficulty with movement. They are also vulnerable to spasms, in which a muscle goes limp or jerks uncontrollably, which in some cases causes severe pain and sleep issues.

While patients can treat spasticity through physical therapy, surgery, muscular injections or pharmaceuticals that come with their own host of side effects, there’s another option: medical cannabis.

Here’s a look at five notable scientific research findings regarding cannabis and spasticity:

Anecdotally, cannabis has built a reputation for relieving muscle spasms, even when it wasn’t widely available to patients for medical use. The 2001 reference book Marijuana as Medicine? The Science Beyond the Controversy noted the following: According to a 1982 survey of people with spinal cord injuries, 21 out of 43 respondents said that cannabis reduced their spasticity, and a 1997 survey of MS patients who use cannabis regularly found nearly all of the 112 respondents also said cannabis helped lessen pain and spasticity.  

Outside of the United States, the cannabis-based drug Sativex, an oromucosal spray containing an approximate 1:1 ratio of CBD to THC, has been currently approved in 21 countries for treatment of spasticity related to MS. A 2012 report in Expert Review of Neurotherapeutics noted, “Results from randomized, controlled trials have reported a reduction in the severity of symptoms associated with spasticity. … These are highly encouraging findings.”

In a review published in 2014 by the American Academy of Neurology that looked at nearly three dozen studies exploring use of cannabinoids in the treatment of MS, epilepsy and movement disorders, researchers concluded that oral cannabis extracts were effective in reducing spasticity and spasticity-related pain.

Similarly, a 2015 research review published by the Journal of the American Medical Association that examined more than 20 randomized clinical trials of cannabinoids found “use of marijuana for chronic pain, neuropathic pain, and spasticity due to multiple sclerosis is supported by high-quality evidence.” In reviewing 24 trials that involved some 2,321 patients, researchers concluded: “Several of these trials had positive results, suggesting that marijuana or cannabinoids may be efficacious for these indications.”

Adding to this mounting evidence, a 2017 comprehensive review by the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine looked at 10,000 scientific studies on cannabis conducted since 1999. Researchers said there was “substantial evidence” showing that adults suffering spasms due to MS were found to experience improvement in symptoms through the short-term use of oral cannabinoids.

All taken into account, both clinical research and accumulating anecdotal evidence suggests cannabis could play a helpful role as an alternative treatment to provide relief for patients suffering from spasticity.

Photo credit: Chris Reichman, Sum & Substance Photography
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