Medical Cannabis Use in Canadians with Multiple Sclerosis

A recent study examined the use of medical cannabis by Canadians with multiple sclerosis (MS) and found that two-thirds of survey respondents have tried medical cannabis at least once. Given high rates of cannabis use by people living with MS, there is a need for research and evidence-based resources to guide its use in MS disease management.

In Canada, medical cannabis has been legal since 2001 and access to recreational cannabis products has expanded since its legalization in 2018. A number of people living with MS use cannabis as an alternative or complementary therapy to help manage MS symptoms such as spasticity, chronic pain, fatigue, anxiety, and depression despite the inconclusive or insufficient evidence on its efficacy or safety.

This cross-sectional research study aimed to gather the perspectives and experiences of people living with MS in Canada to understand prevalence of medical cannabis use, its perceived efficacy in treating a variety of symptoms, and the frequency and severity of adverse events. A total of 344 participants completed the questionnaire. A majority of the participants were female (80%) and had an average age of 45 years. Most of the respondents were diagnosed with relapsing-remitting MS (79.3%), while 10.5% had secondary progressive MS, and the remaining had primary progressive MS or did not know their diagnosis.

The researchers found that 52.3% of the respondents were current users of medical cannabis, while 10.2% were former users, and 37.5% had never used cannabis before. Among users, almost 74% report using medical cannabis products daily. Those who used cannabis were more likely to have a greater disease burden (i.e. more progressive forms of MS, not currently using disease-modifying therapies [DMTs], higher levels of disability , and reported lower quality of life). Over 80% of current users reported cannabis as being effective or highly effective in treating spasticity, pain, sleep problems, bad mood, poor appetite, and stress. Adverse events reported were drowsiness, feeling quiet/subdued, difficulty concentrating, balance problems, and incoherent thoughts. Former cannabis users reported reasons for stopping were cost and accessibility, found cannabis to be ineffective for their purposes, or it had undesirable adverse effects. For non-cannabis users, they reported they were unaware of potential benefits, did not feel they needed it/were uninterested, or did not use it due to social stigma.

The patient reported findings from this study and others will inform research to understand the underlying mechanisms of action of cannabis in symptom management and emphasizes the need for randomized controlled trials that can provide evidence on the benefits and harms of cannabis and its derivatives in treating MS symptoms. Research on efficacy and safety will ultimately inform guidelines for healthcare providers and the public on medical cannabis use in MS. 

MS Society of Canada in partnership with CIHR are supporting research on a randomized clinical trial to assess the use of cannabis derivatives in the treatment of MS symptoms – link here.


Full text article published in Multiple Sclerosis and Related Disorders Journal: