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Multiple Sclerosis (MS) is a chronic inflammatory disease of the central nervous system. MS affects approximately 3.0 million people globally, with about 300,000 cases in the United States. Twice as many women as men have MS. The average ages for onset of MS is 20-40 years. In MS, cells in the immune system attack and destroy myelin, the fatty tissue surrounding nerve cells (http://www.phylomed.com/MS.html). Scar tissue replaces the myelin, interfering with the transmission of nerve signals and leading to numbness, fatigue, spasticity, loss of muscle control, and various other debilitating symptoms. There are four broad theories concerning the etiology of MS. The immune system, environment, viral infections, and genetics are possible factors attributed to the cause of MS.
Spasticity refers to an increase in muscle tone that causes muscle stiffness or spasms (Sibley, 105). There are two types of spasticity prevalent in people with MS: phasic spasms and a sustained increase in muscle tone. Phasic spasms sub-categorize into two types of spasticity: flexor and extensor. In flexor spasticity, the hips and knees of the person bend forward, due to tightening of the hamstrings. In extensor spasticity, the legs of the patient cross over at the ankles or lock together, with the hips and knees remaining rigid (http://www.nmss.org/msinfo/cmsi/spasticity.html). Spasms also occur less frequently in the arms, backs, and necks of people with MS. Both types of spasticity debilitate patients and lead to difficulties in performing daily tasks. Phasic spasms disrupt the balance of the patient and can cause severe pain. Steady increases in muscle tone inhibits ambulatory abilities, forcing patients to rely on walkers and wheelchairs for transportation
Research providing the breakdown of all of the chemicals in marijuana and their specific physiological and psychological effects is scarce. When analyzing the medicinal effects of marijuana on spasticity, researchers focus primarily on two main active ingredients in the marijuana plant: tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabinoids (chemicals related to THC) (http://www.marihemp.com/marimed.html). Recently, scientists discovered that cannabinoids closely resemble a chemical in the body called anandamide. Anandamide “turns on” nerve receptors throughout the Central Nervous System that effect motor functioning, nausea, and various other biological functions (http://www.marijuanamyths.com/med-myths.php3). This development suggests that cannabinoids have similar effects to anandamide and justifies further research on the therapeutic value of marijuana for muscle spasms attributed to MS.
Medical Marijuana and Its Effects on Spasticity
There are a limited number of scientific studies specifically related to the effect that marijuana has on spasticity in patients with MS. The following four studies, listed in chronological order from the most recent, illustrate the positive correlation found between medical marijuana and reduced spasticity in patients with MS.
Meinch, Schonle, and Conrad found that cannabinoids might have beneficial effects on spasticity (Meinch et al, 1989). They performed a case study of a 34 year old male diagnosed with MS. The patient suffered from ataxia and spastic tetraparesis. The goal of their research was to determine a relationship between smoking marijuana and levels of spasticity and ataxia in multiple sclerosis victims. The patient was hospitalized from 17 October to 25 October. On 22 October the patient was given one experimental marijuana cigarette. There were a number of different research methods implemented in this study. The researchers used quantitative clinical and electrophysiological assessments to determine the effects of the smoked marijuana. They repeated each evaluation five to ten times before and after the patient smoked the marijuana cigarette (Meinck et al., 1989).