People with certain neurological disorders or trauma often suffer from spasticity, which causes painful muscle spasms. Medical marijuana has been shown to help alleviate symptoms in patients with this debilitating condition.
What is Spasticity?
Spasticity is a complication of many neurological illnesses, including multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy, stroke and neurological trauma like spinal cord injuries. The American Association of Neurological Surgeons (AANS) says spasticity is caused by damage to the portion of the brain or spinal cord that's in charge of voluntary movement, leading to painful symptoms, including:
- Involuntary muscle spasms and movements
- Increased muscle tone
- Hyperactive reflexes
- Stiff or tight muscles
- Inhibited movement and speech
The AANS estimates that 12 million people worldwide suffer from spasticity. For many, the symptoms may be mild and may not require treatment. Severe spasticity, however, can lead to muscle fatigue, uncontrollable muscle movements, pain, and joint and bone deformities. Traditional treatment for severe spasticity involves:
- Oral medications with muscle relaxants such as baclofen
- Local injections of botulinum toxin (botulism)
- Physical therapy
- Surgery, including baclofen pumps and severing of nerve roots
Many of the traditional treatment methods have side effects. Baclofen, for example, has been associated with drowsiness, nausea and vomiting, dizziness, depression, and muscle weakness. Botulinum has been linked to muscle weakness, headache, injection-site infection, and dizziness.
Spasticity and Cannabis
When medical marijuana was introduced to Victorian England in the 1840s, it was recommended for a variety of illnesses and conditions, including muscle spasms. Research in the 21st century on cannabis and spasticity are now providing support for this historical use, especially in relation to the endocannabinoid system.
Spasticity and the Endocannabinoid System
The endocannabinoid system is a critical part of the nervous system. It helps maintain balance between the synapses; the structures involved in communication between nerves and other tissue, such as muscle. Damage from injury or disease, like lesions from multiple sclerosis, can interrupt this balance, causing spasticity.
Research on tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), one of the cannabinoids found in medical marijuana, shows that THC improves spasticity in persons with multiple sclerosis. THC is taken up by the endocannabinoid system, blocking the inflammatory action of the lesions and improving communication between nerves and muscles. Furthermore, by reducing the inflammation, cannabis not only controls pain but may protect against further degeneration of the nerves, thus slowing disease progression.
The Future of Spasticity Treatment
A review study by researchers from the University of Colorado looked at a dozen studies on the effects of cannabis on spasticity. The overall results support the use of cannabis as spasticity treatment, It appears that medical marijuana may be just what is needed to relieve the severe, debilitating effects of spasticity.