Parkinson’s is one of the most sinister of neurodegenerative disorders. It debilitates slowly and steadily, making the patient and their loved ones suffer. At present, there is no cure for this brain disease and the only courses of treatment doctors recommend are drugs and surgery, both of which are expensive and not without unfavorable side effects such as headaches, nausea, insomnia, memory problems, confusion, diarrhea and impaired urination.
Although recent studies have shown that marijuana, particularly its cannabinoids, has the potential to treat a variety of neurological diseases and even mood disorders, the amount of research at present is just not enough for medical professionals to recommend cannabis as a form of treatment for disorders like Parkinson’s.
But for a lot of people desperate to alleviate the suffering of their loved ones, a bit of good news is enough reason to try marijuana. However, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing and from what we already know about cannabis, it has the power to treat and also aggravate existing conditions, anxiety for example, depending on the dosage.
So, should patients with neurological conditions and their families pin their hopes on marijuana? Blindly believing in anecdotal evidence is not enough, the only way to know would be to scrutinize what available scientific information we have now and evaluate the risk-reward ratio of using it to treat Parkinson’s. To begin, let’s look at some of the brain conditions marijuana is being used for.
Marijuana and brain conditions
There’s already so much literature on how marijuana affects the brain but lay people who want to get an idea on how it works only need to focus on how a handful of cannabinoids, the active compounds that give marijuana its mind-altering properties, impacts our central nervous system.
Basically, these compounds react with the receptors in our nervous system, changing the way our brain cells communicate with each other and the rest of the body. Since cannabinoids can directly impact the brain, they have the power to disrupt practically every aspect of our bodily functions such as cognitive and motor abilities, mood, behavior, etc.
Fortunately, this kind of power that marijuana has can be harnessed to restore a nervous system that is out of whack. In fact, marijuana is so effective for this purpose that health professionals are now allowed to recommend it for the following neurological conditions:
- Multiple Sclerosis – This autoimmune disease is already a qualifying condition for medical marijuana in a handful of states. MS patients suffer a whole range of symptoms that can vary from numbness, tremors, partial or total loss of vision, muscle spasticity and pain among others. However, studies have shown that marijuana only seems to be helpful in managing pain, stiffness and spasms, and bladder problems. There’s also no indication that it can cure MS or treat its cause.
- Epilepsy – Marijuana has long been used to reduce seizures since ancient times and at present, epilepsy is also a qualifying condition for medical cannabis in most states. However, studies seem to point that the cannabinoid CBD alone may be enough to reduce seizures but this and marijuana does not totally cure the patient of epilepsy.
- PTSD – Post traumatic stress disorder is already a qualifying condition for medical marijuana in most states. A recent study also showed that cannabis blends with a higher THC concentration of up to 9% yielded favorable results.
- Alzheimer’s – One of the most debilitating symptoms of Alzheimer’s is dementia which is characterized by the progressive loss of memory, cognitive skills, and the eventual inability to perform day to day tasks. Alzheimer’s dementia is already a qualifying condition for medical marijuana in some states but similar to other conditions, it only alleviates symptoms related to pain, muscular function and agitated behavior but there’s no evidence that it can treat or prevent the disease itself.
- Progressive supranuclear palsy (PSP) – One neurodegenerative disease where marijuana seems to show promise is PSP, which closely resembles Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. At least one study showed that full extract cannabis oil improved the condition of a 71-year old PSP patient who regained some eye movement, the ability to eat, speak, and walk with assistance.
Of course, patients who receive marijuana treatment for these disorders are not spared from the side effects of marijuana like the effects of THC intoxication and other brain issues associated with cannabis use.
How marijuana helps with Parkinson’s
Based on how marijuana is currently recommended for neurological conditions, it’s reasonable to expect that while it can be used to treat some symptoms of Parkinson’s, it probably won’t hold the cure. But while this remains to be confirmed by future studies, what we know now based on existing research is this:
- One survey of Parkinson’s patients revealed that the subjects thought that marijuana use alleviated most of their symptoms including pain, muscle cramps, and various motor and non-motor symptoms. Some even said that cannabis was more effective than their PD medication.
- The potential of marijuana in alleviating bradykinesia (slowness of movement), dyskinesia (abnormal, involuntary movement) rigidity, tremor, sleep, and pain in PD patients has been confirmed in at least one study.
- There is an ongoing study which seeks to confirm whether CBD can help treat psychosis in PD patients.
- While marijuana is generally well-tolerated by PD patients in studies, there are studies where it did not seem to make a positive or negative effect, though the patient reported feeling better possibly due to the release of dopamine in the brain caused by marijuana use.
- An analysis of existing studies on marijuana’s effect on Parkinson’s seemed to show that it can equally aggravate hallucinations and brain fog, and affect balance, thus increasing the patient’s risk for falls.
Frequently Asked Questions on Marijuana and Parkinson’s
Based on existing studies, there’s no evidence showing that marijuana can cure Parkinson’s. However, cannabis does seem to help alleviate some of the symptoms of PD such as muscle spasticity, tremors, and pain.
There are risks when using cannabis to treat symptoms of Parkinson’s. It may cause sudden drop in blood pressure and loss of balance, which is dangerous especially to fall-prone PD patients. Cannabis use can also exacerbate muddy thinking and hallucinations.
While medical marijuana undoubtedly has a lot of benefits, what’s clear at present is that there’s little evidence pointing to its potential as a treatment for Parkinson’s. However, this doesn’t mean that it’s a dead end, a lot of studies do agree that there’s still a lot that can be uncovered in future research. For now, patients should also not use marijuana casually like recreational users do since it can also exacerbate some of the symptoms of PD. Instead, those who wish to use marijuana to help with their symptoms should try CBD-rich strains first and see if it works for them. Meanwhile, those using strains with THC should start with a small dose and work their way up from there.