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Cannabis And Muscle Spasms


marijuana muscleBy Alan Shackelford, M.D.

People with multiple sclerosis and other diseases that cause severe muscle spasms, spasticity and tremors have used cannabis for a very long time, and have consistently reported that it relieves their symptoms. In what is perhaps the earliest medical report on the use of cannabis to treat muscle spasms, Dr. William O’Shaughnessy, a British physician working in India, reported in 1842 that cannabis extracts effectively controlled the spasticity he observed in cases of tetanus, and in 1890, Dr. J.R. Reynolds reported in The Lancet that alcohol extracts of cannabis were effective in controlling painful muscle spasms. Little more was published until an informal 1974 survey of 10 patients with spinal cord injuries and muscle spasms reported that more than half of them experienced decreased muscle spasticity using marijuana. This was followed in 1980 by a case report on two patients with nocturnal muscle spasms, one of whom had MS, that experienced relief within 5 minutes of smoking marijuana. Abstaining from marijuana led to recurrent spasms that were again rapidly relieved by marijuana.

Over the next several years, a number of other case reports and small clinical trials confirmed these initial observations, but it was not until the ’90s that trials with larger numbers of patients were conducted. A survey of 53 MS patients in Britain and 59 MS patients in the U.S. conducted by Dr. Paul Consroe and colleagues at the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology at the University of Arizona revealed that more than 70 percent people with MS reported improvement in muscle spasms, spasticity and tremors with marijuana. Patients also reported that it was helpful in improving bowel and bladder problems, difficulty walking and loss of appetites and weight loss.

A similar survey conducted in 2002 by Dr. M. S. Chong at King’s College Hospital in London in the UK showed that nearly half of all MS patients were regularly using marijuana to control their muscle spasms, and that 76 percent of British patients would use it if it were legally available.

More recently, GW Pharmaceuticals, a UK-based company, reported that clinical trials of its cannabis extract called Sativex involving 572 and 241 patients respectively showed significant reductions in muscle spasms when compared with placebo. Sativex, which is administered as an oral spray, was approved by Health Canada in 2005 for use in treating neuropathic pain associated with MS, and has been used on a limited prescription basis in the UK and Spain for treating muscle spasms and pain associated with MS, with applications now under review for full prescription use in those countries and throughout the European Union.

Of greater importance is a finding reported in the journal Brain in 2003 that a synthetic cannabinoid provided “significant neuroprotection” in an animal model of multiple sclerosis. Dr. Gareth Pryce and a team of investigators at the Institute of Neurology at University College in London reported that “The results of this study are important because they suggest that in addition to symptom management . . . cannabis may also slow the neurodegenerative processes that ultimately lead to chronic disability in multiple sclerosis and probably other diseases.”

To test the findings of the 2003 animal study in humans, a 12-month study was conducted at the Peninsula Medical School in Plymouth, England. The results, published in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry in 2005, indicated that cannabis extracts may indeed slow the progression of MS, prompting a large-scale, 3-year study involving nearly 500 MS patients that is now underway at the same medical school. Results are not expected until the study ends in 2012, but if they verify the earlier findings, it would be a major advance in the treatment of MS.

Cannabis has also been shown to be effective in relieving muscle spasms and spasticity associated with a number of other illnesses such as irritable bowel syndrome, premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD) and PMS, cerebral palsy, Parkinson’s Disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s disease), spinal cord injury and other nerve injuries, and may also relieve the bronchial spasms that cause asthma, though little formal research has been done on cannabis in any of these conditions.

Unfortunately, it is unlikely that such research will ever be done, at least not in the United States, because the official position of the DEA is that marijuana has no medical benefit, and the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), which funds 85 percent of the world’s research into substances like marijuana, has publicly stated that it generally does not fund studies that might show medical benefit to marijuana. If you think those positions might be misguided, contact your elected representatives in the U.S. House and Senate and urge them to support research into cannabis and its medical effects.

Alan Shackelford, M.D., graduated from the University of Heidelberg School of Medicine and trained at major teaching hospitals of Harvard Medical School in internal medicine, nutritional medicine and hyperalimentation and behavioral medicine. He is principle physician for Intermedical Consulting, LLC and Amarimed of Colorado, LLC and can be contacted at Amarimed.com.

Article from Culture Magazine and republished with special permission


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  1. I am a Washington state resident. I’ve had major surgery consisting of a Heller Myotomy, and a fundoplication to treat Achalasia. I am faced with mild to moderate pain for the rest of my life. The pain often gets very intense. I have tried oxycodone, and tylenol. Both these medications have very undesirable side effects, and sometimes don’t work at all. Tylenol can ruin your liver and kill you if you take too much. I have just tried some THC for muscle relaxing and pain moderation. This is the best I have had. It really does work. The pain is gone, and there are no side effects that I can notice as of yet. I cannot stress this enough: this substance works and it works well. The way it is processed, it does not get you “stoned” it just relaxes you. Wikipedia has a very good article describing the way Marijuana is used as a medicine. Now, for the rest of my life, I will have a workable alternative, as will some others in this state, and possibly in Colorado as well. How many others are in the same situation, but cannot get the medicine we can get here in Washington? It is a crime to make people suffer when they don’t have to. When will the rest of the country wake up?

  2. Charles Waller on

    Very interesting information. A large body of research does exist into the therapeutic effects of cannabinoids on many of the conditions cited in the article. Much of it can be accessed at pubmed. Kathy Jordan in Florida is an example of the efficacy of cannabinoids in ALS treatment. I think thousands of years of safe, effective use of cannabis by humans for food, fiber, fuel, medicine and intoxicant should be evidence enough.

  3. I’m a stage IV throat cancer survivor. The standard treatment for this type of cancer is usually chemotherapy and radiation. The radiation in particular has some lifelong and life changing effects. Things like permanent damage to the taste buds resulting in decreased and altered taste. It typically damages your saliva glands to the point that you can no longer enjoy things like chips, nuts and breads. Another side effect I have encountered have been debilitating neck spasms. These started about a year after my treatment was completed and have seemed to come in spurts that can last for hours a day. I found it so painful and debilitating that I have had to quit work and go on disability. I started using cannabis at night to help me sleep as my insomnia has gotten worse since treatment. Then I watched the CNN report “Weed” with Dr Sanjay Gupta. In this report they highlighted a little girl that had been suffering from chronic and almost constant seizures. Her parents had tried every drug and modality of conventional treatment but her condition only deteriorated. As a last resort they decided to try marijuana to control her seizure activity. It worked and her seizure activity went from over a hundred seizures a day to one or two. Another young man suffered from a condition where his diaphragm would spasm to the point that he could not talk. He too has found great relief of his condition. So I thought if “weed” could help these patients neurological conditions maybe it would help with my neck cramps. So one day my spasms started up and I decided to take a couple of tokes. Within 5 min the cramping stopped, completely! It was amazing. Why is this substance not legal to help people lead more complete lives?

  4. It’s becoming increasingly promoted that drugs will solve all man’s ills. At best it masks the symptoms and does offer relief. The money spent on all these studies, drugs and administration may be better used on real facilities to provide lifestyle improvements and the type of attention most needed for those with the conditions mentioned.

    A sub-standard quality of life is no substituted for keeping one numbed down through life.

  5. Great article, THANK YOU! Please keep the articles coming! I was born w/Spina Bifida but knew little about it til a wreck @ age 22 aggravated it, requiring Laminectomy. Used Cannabis since High School & never had any probs typically associated w/Spina Bifida-makes me wonder if my using Cannabis delayed their onset. I’ve been a Medical Marijuana Patient almost 9yrs & found the only Medicine that stops my non-stop leg spasms is topical applications of Cannabis Lotions. Cannabis also helps me tolerate the Narcotics I must use for pain, Cannabis helps my pain but I can’t afford what I’d need if I wanted to go without Narcotics. Sorry for rambling! Thanks again for the great work you’re doing! G-D BLESS!

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