Sativex is the brand name for a cannabis-based drug called nabiximols. It’s the only drug in the UK with a licence to treat muscle stiffness and spasms (spasticity) caused by MS. A licence gives permission for a medicine to be used to treat certain symptoms.
What is Sativex?
Sativex is a cannabis-based medicine. It’s used to treat the common MS symptom of muscle stiffness and spasms (known as ‘spasticity’).
Sativex is a spray you use in your mouth. It contains two chemicals from the cannabis plant called cannabinoids. They’re in an equal mix of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD).
On this page we look at:
- How do I take Sativex?
- How well does Sativex work?
- What MS symptoms can Sativex help with?
- Can I get Sativex?
- What are the side effects of Sativex?
- Does Sativex cause problems with memory, thinking or mental health?
- Can I take Sativex if I’m pregnant or breastfeeding
- Can I drive and operate machinery if I take Sativex?
Sativex is a mouth spray (sometimes called an oromucosal spray) and you start off taking one dose a day. You then slowly add more doses until you get the most relief from your symptoms. You mustn’t take more than 12 doses of Sativex a day.
Sativex doesn’t work for lots of people. But for those it does work for, their spasticity symptoms get significantly better. When people use Sativex around 7 in 10 of them see their spasticity reduce by at least 20%. And spasticity is reduced even more for some people - by 30% or more for around 4 in every 10 people.
If your spasticity symptoms haven’t got better by at least 20% after 4 weeks, you usually stop taking it.
Sativex only has a licence to treat spasticity but some people say it helps with their other MS symptoms, including:
- bladder problems
- difficulty sleeping
- tremor (uncontrolled shaking of the leg or arm)
A 2014 study found the drug didn’t help with tremor, but that it was ‘probably effective’ for spasticity, pain and bladder problems.
Sativex is approved for use on the NHS in England, Wales and Northern Ireland for some people with MS. It’s not recommended for people under 18. Sativex is not approved on the NHS in Scotland.
In England, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) recommends which drugs you can get on the NHS. In 2019 it decided Sativex could be available to people in England with ‘moderate’ to ‘severe’ spasticity. This is only when other treatments haven’t helped.
In Wales, Sativex has been available like this since 2014.
In Northern Ireland, Sativex was accepted in April 2021 by the Health and Social Care Board process for the Managed Entry of Medicines, again for use in people with ‘moderate’ to ‘severe’ spasticity when other treatments haven’t helped.
We want to see it approved on the NHS in Scotland too.
Getting treatments on the NHS doesn’t just depend on a recommendation from NICE or from the Scottish Medicines Consortium, which makes these decisions in Scotland. It might still be difficult to get because the NHS in some regions might not agree to pay for it, or local prescribers decide not to give it to people.
All the same, it could still be worth talking to your doctor about your chances of getting a prescription for Sativex.
The side effects of Sativex can include:
- feeling sick
- feeling sleepy
- a dry mouth.
Sativex could make some MS symptoms worse, such as fatigue.
Side effects tend to fade after a few weeks. You can reduce them by taking fewer doses. If you get soreness in your mouth from taking Sativex, you can avoid this by changing the part of your mouth you spray on.
Some people taking Sativex report a feeling similar to the ‘high’ you get from smoking cannabis, but this isn't very common. It's caused by the THC in Sativex.
Cannabis causes problems for some people with their memory, thinking or mental health, or they become dependent on it. But these problems aren’t seen in people who use Sativex, despite it having THC in it.
But you shouldn’t take Sativex if you’ve had certain serious mental health problems.
You shouldn’t use Sativex if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding.
You can still drive if you use Sativex, but not when it’s making you feel sleepy, dizzy, or is affecting your concentration or eyesight. This goes for other dangerous activity like operating machinery.
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