Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: April 2023

Cannabis is a plant originally from Asia. It is also called Cannabis sativa. More commonly, cannabis is known as marijuana. The cannabis plant has been used in medicine for hundreds of years. It has been used to manage issues that come with cancer treatment, like nausea and low appetite. It is sometimes used in other health conditions to manage symptoms like pain, too.1,2

What are cannabinoids?

There are several compounds in the cannabis plant, including terpenes, flavonoids, and cannabinoids. Terpenes are chemicals that give cannabis its smell. Flavonoids may impact the way immune system cells talk to one another. Cannabinoids interact with the cannabinoid system in the body. These compounds impact the release of chemicals in the brain that can affect the way we think and perceive pain.1,2

The body naturally makes cannabinoids. These are called endocannabinoids. They create natural endorphin-like feelings (like a “runner’s high”). Cannabinoids in cannabis can activate this system, too.1

The two main types of cannabinoids in cannabis are tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD). THC interacts with the way we think. THC is considered a psychoactive compound. It can impact mood, consciousness, and perception. The “high” people think of when it comes to cannabis is often caused by THC. On the other hand, CBD does not affect the brain. It is non-psychoactive. CBD can be extracted from cannabis and used on its own.1-3

Cannabis and MS

Cannabis can come in natural and synthetic forms. Natural forms come straight from the plant. Synthetic cannabinoids are made in a lab. Some drugs used for chemotherapy-related nausea or vomiting are synthetic cannabinoids. Cannabis can be smoked, eaten, or absorbed through the skin.1-3

There are many different cannabis products available today. There are currently no FDA-approved synthetic cannabinoids for MS. However, there are some in other countries.1-3

The true impact of cannabis on multiple sclerosis (MS) is unknown. There are no large clinical trials testing its effects. However, some small studies have found that cannabis may have some benefit in MS. Overall, some experts believe that synthetic cannabinoids may help symptoms like pain or muscle spasticity. Cannabinoids do not seem to have an impact on bladder symptoms or tremors.1-5

Also, cannabis may affect the immune system. This is not proven, but cannabis could reduce inflammation and damage in the central nervous system. However, much more research is needed to understand the impact of cannabis on MS symptoms. Researchers also are still learning the effects of different forms of cannabis.4

Side effects of cannabis

As with any potential treatment, there are several common side effects of cannabis. These include:1,2

  • Confusion or trouble thinking
  • Altered consciousness or sedation
  • Anxiety or paranoia
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Dry mouth and eyes
  • Increased appetite
  • Balance and coordination issues
  • High heart rate

Inhaled cannabis can also affect the lungs. This is especially true if tobacco and cannabis products are mixed and inhaled. Tobacco products can make MS damage and symptoms worse.1,3

This is not a full list of all potential side effects of cannabis. Talk with your doctor for more information. Side effects can also vary based on the specific cannabis product used and how it is taken.1

Things to know about cannabis

In the United States, there are various laws about the use of cannabis. In some states, it is illegal to use marijuana in any form. In others, marijuana can be used for medical reasons only. Certain states allow the use of marijuana for both medical and recreational purposes.6

The amounts of THC and CBD in marijuana can vary between sources. In addition, some sources of cannabis may have toxins like pesticides or other dangerous compounds. The production of cannabis is not standardized, even in places where marijuana is legal.1,2

It is possible to develop tolerance to cannabis. This means that more is needed to achieve the same effect. Over time, people also can become dependent on cannabis if they use it frequently. When they try to stop, withdrawal symptoms can occur for a few days. These symptoms include trouble sleeping, restlessness, irritability, and nausea, among others. A person is less likely to become dependent on cannabis than on tobacco, alcohol, or other drugs. Unlike many other drugs, it is very hard to overdose on cannabis.1

As with any complementary or alternative treatment, use caution with cannabis. If you are interested in using cannabis for your MS symptoms, talk with your doctor first. They may be able to connect you with a medical dispensary. If cannabis is not legal in your state, they can give you more information on the local laws.

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