August 18, 2002 9:09 p.m. EDT
By PEGGY PECK, UPI Science News
SAN DIEGO - A survey of multiple sclerosis patients living in England found that 45 percent use marijuana either for relief of disabling leg spasms or to ease MS pain - and use increases as symptoms worsen.
Neurologist Dr. M. Sam Chong of King's College Hospital, London, said the "use rate is actually higher than we expected, especially since 18 percent of the patients said they used cannabis in the last month." In an interview with United Press International, Chong, who presented the findings Sunday at the 10th World Congress on Pain, said that about half of the patients "started using marijuana only after MS was diagnosed."
Multiple sclerosis is a neurodegenerative disorder that destroys myelin, the casing that protects the spinal cord.
He said that 74 percent said that marijuana either eliminated or controlled leg spasms that make walking difficult or impossible while 54 percent said they used marijuana mainly for pain relief.
The medical use of marijuana is controversial and far from proven. Earlier this year a study published in the journal Science reported that marijuana did not improve MS symptoms or relieve MS-associated pain.
Nonetheless, Chong said, his survey results indicate that marijuana is beneficial for some MS patients.
The 15-page surveys were mailed to 300 MS patients who are included in an MS patient database used by the neurology department and outpatient clinics. Two hundred fifty-eight surveys were returned. He said that patients who reported more severe symptoms were more likely to use marijuana, than patients who had mild or moderate symptoms. "And as symptom severity increased, use also increased," he said.
"If patients were smokers, then they smoked the marijuana," he said. But most patients were non-smokers and the preferred delivery was "to bake it in a cake and keep it in the refrigerator so they could cut off pieces as they needed it."
Generally, "patients reported using marijuana just before bed" rather than using it throughout the day.
Dr. Sandra Chaplan, a clinical professor of anesthesiology at the University of California, San Diego, and a member of the organizing committee for the pain meeting, noted that recently researchers have identified marijuana receptors in the brain, a finding that suggested it may have a role in pain relief. Moreover, she said that only recently have "we come to recognize that intractable pain is a symptom of MS, so it makes sense that cannabis should be investigated for MS symptoms."
But Chaplan said that smoking is not a medically acceptable mode of delivery. "We need to find a delivery system - preferably a pill - that will deliver the analgesic effects with little or no cognitive effects." Meanwhile, she said, physicians are unlikely to recommend marijuana to MS patients.
Chong agreed: "Neurologists are not likely to start prescribing marijuana,
but among MS patients marijuana use is increasing because it is commonly
recommended by members of patient support groups."
Copyright © 2002 United Press International