You've had multiple sclerosis for a while now and tried a bunch of things to ease your pain or control those muscle spasms. But you're just not getting the relief you need. Is it time, you wonder, to pay attention to all the talk about medical marijuana? Could it be an option for you?
It's giving some relief to people like Zach, who asked to keep his full name confidential. He lives in Phoenix, AZ, where medical marijuana has been legal since 2010.
Zach deals with tingling in his hands and feet, balance problems, and pain in the top of his head and spine. He also has "phantom sensations," like tasting root beer when his mouth is empty, smelling ammonia suddenly, or hearing a train that isn't there.
"When people started talking to me about medical marijuana after my diagnosis, it was daunting," he says. "I'm the biggest square you'll ever meet. I've never even been drunk before. So I was on the fence about using it."
Symptoms That Marijuana Treats
Your doctor isn't likely to suggest you use it until you try other medicines first. He may recommend it as an additional treatment if you live in a state where it's legal.
Research is still early, but some studies show it can treat MS symptoms like:
Stiffness or uncontrolled muscle movements. Medical marijuana may help calm your spasms and let you move your arms and legs more freely.
Overactive bladder. Does MS make you feel like you need to go the bathroom a lot? The drug can ease the spasms that cause your frequent urge to pee.
Zach says marijuana "takes the edge off" his pain, but it's not meant to be a quick fix, like aspirin.
"Relief doesn't happen the next day," he says. "It takes several weeks for your body to figure out what it's going to do with this new chemical."
How Do I Take It?
Doctors suggest you use medical marijuana as a pill or spray instead of smoking.
"In theory, smoked marijuana should be as effective a treatment as other forms," says Kevin P. Hill, MD, assistant professor at Harvard Medical School. But doctors don't recommend you take it that way because it's bad for your lungs. And when you use the drug in pill or spray form, it helps your doctor control how much of the active chemical you get.
What Are the Risks?
Marijuana has some side effects and long-term risks, Hill says. They're the same whether you use it for fun or as medicine.
In the short run, you may have:
- Increased heart rate
- Slowed reaction time
- Coordination and balance problems
- Dry mouth
If you use medical marijuana every day, Hill says, you may get problems like:
- Trouble doing complex thinking
- Mood swings
Zach says the only side effect he's noticed is a "fuzzy feeling" in his head after taking it. But since he's on other medications, too, he says it's hard to tell which one is causing it.
Could I Get Addicted?
"Most people who use marijuana, like most people who use alcohol, do not develop problems with addiction," Hill says, but it's a possibility for some.
"About 9% of adults and about 17% of young people who use marijuana become addicted," according to Hill. So use it to treat MS only when your doctor supervises your care.
The Future of Medical Marijuana
It's now legal in more than 20 states, but not all doctors think their patients should use it. Zach saw this firsthand when he brought it up with his medical team.
"They were supportive of me trying it, but wouldn't prescribe themselves," he says. "They referred me to a doctor who was more comfortable with the process, and I was able to get my medical marijuana card."
Some doctors are troubled that the FDA has not yet approved the treatment for any condition. But, Hill says, "the medical marijuana landscape is constantly changing." Things seem to be headed in favor of using it to treat diseases like MS.