In our last lesson, we talked about how cannabis has been cultivated for medical purposes for almost 5,000 years. But medicine has changed a lot during that time, and so has our understanding of how illness affects the human body. So, what does it mean when we hear the term medical cannabis in our contemporary culture? What ailments can cannabis help with, and what do doctors and scientists think about cannabis as medicine?
What Counts As A Medical Use Of Cannabis?
If you live in a state with medical cannabis, the law will dictate pretty strictly which conditions and ailments are eligible for treatment with cannabis. Then your doctor will have to write you a medical recommendation stating that you would benefit from using cannabis to treat your symptoms. Many doctors acknowledge the therapeutic and medicinal benefits of cannabis, especially when treating chronic conditions that affect a patient’s quality of life. However, some doctors are skeptical about cannabis use. Other doctors acknowledge the therapeutic benefits of cannabis use but may be reluctant to recommend its use due to a number of factors.
If you live in a state with legal recreational cannabis, you don’t need a doctor’s recommendation to buy cannabis; you can legally purchase cannabis from your local dispensary as a recreational customer. But that doesn’t mean you can’t still use cannabis medicinally! In fact, many recreational cannabis users find that flower, concentrates, topicals, and edibles can help relieve discomfort for common non-emergency symptoms like pain, nausea, and indigestion.
What Does Cannabis Help With?
Because everyone’s body chemistry is different, some people will find that cannabis works better at treating painful symptoms while other people may not get the same level of relief. Even within the realm of medical cannabis use, there’s a great deal of variance between the effects that different cannabis strains can provide.
Every state that has legalized the use of medical cannabis will have its own set of qualifying conditions, but these lists aren’t necessarily set in stone. States do occasionally add new qualifying conditions that are eligible for a medical cannabis recommendation, typically after a lengthy review process. Though not a comprehensive list, here is a compilation of the most common ailments and symptoms that government agencies and medical professionals have recognized may be helped by the use of cannabis:
- Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) - helps reduce pain, muscle spasticity, excessive saliva production, and depression. Also stimulates appetite, which is important since significant weight loss is common in individuals with ALS.
- Anorexia and Cachexia (wasting syndrome) - stimulates appetite in patients with cancer or HIV/AIDS who struggle with severe appetite loss and dangerous weight reduction.
- Cancer - reduces pain and nausea while increasing appetite for patients battling cancer and/or undergoing chemotherapy.
- Crohn’s disease and other types of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) - reduces abdominal pain/cramping, nausea, and diarrhea. In one study, 45% of patients using cannabis achieved complete remission of their symptoms for some period of time while reducing their dependence on dangerous pharmaceutical steroids.
- Glaucoma - may decrease intraocular pressure, which could otherwise cause damage to the optic nerves and eventually lead to blindness.
- HIV/AIDS - manages neuropathic pain, nausea, vomiting, and appetite loss/cachexia associated with HIV and AIDS.
- Multiple Sclerosis (MS) - may help control muscle tightness, muscle spasms, and pain associated with MS.
- Nausea - cannabis helps reduce nausea and vomiting, which are common symptoms of many debilitating illnesses (including several conditions that are on this list).
- Pain that is severe, chronic, or intractable - the use of cannabis often helps patients coping with chronic pain, including pain associated with neuropathy (nerve damage).
- Parkinson’s disease - may help manage neurological symptoms such as tremors/spasticity, muscle rigidity, and pain while improving motor function and overall symptom management in many patients.
- Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) - alleviates anxiety, feelings of panic, and insomnia in many individuals with PTSD. Some patients also report that cannabis helped improve their overall ability to cope with their past trauma.
- Rheumatoid arthritis - cannabis use may help manage pain. One study found that daily ingestion of CBD also reduced bone and joint damage while slowing the overall progression of rheumatoid arthritis.
- Seizures - CBD extracts have helped many individuals with epilepsy reduce their monthly seizure frequency by as much as 50%.
- Spasticity (muscle spasms) - cannabis and oral cannabis extracts may help reduce spasticity in individuals living with neurologic disorders.
How Does Cannabis Work As Medicine?
After noticing the broad range of conditions and symptoms in the list above, you may be wondering, How can cannabis help ALL of those disparate conditions? A lot of the therapeutic potential of cannabis is due to your body’s endocannabinoid system. You may remember from our lesson on cannabinoids that the endocannabinoid system is a tightly-regulated internal network that stabilizes the body’s temperature, cellular function, and various metabolic functions. Cannabinoids found in cannabis, like THC and CBD, mimic the size and shape of your body’s naturally-occurring compounds, called endocannabinoids (“endo” is a Greek prefix meaning “inner” or “within” - hence, your body’s inner cannabinoids). THC, CBD, and other plant-derived cannabinoids interact with your body’s endocannabinoid receptors to help regulate many of your body’s internal functions, which is why cannabis can help alleviate the symptoms of so many conditions.
Cannabis interacts with your endocannabinoid system to relieve stomach ailments like nausea, indigestion, GI motility (excessive movement in the digestive tract), and cramping. It stimulates your appetite by more or less tricking your brain into thinking that your body is hungry, and it also increases the sensory experience of eating food.
Cannabis helps a number of other ailments in interesting ways. Certain cannabinoids - particularly CBD - act as powerful anti-inflammatory agents. That’s why many cannabis-infused topical agents like lotions and bath salts contain CBD.
The aromatic terpenes naturally found in cannabis may offer their own unique therapeutic effects. Not only do terpenes give your cannabis its pungent smell and unique taste, they can also interact directly with your endocannabinoid system. You may remember from our lesson on terpenes that these aromatic compounds are often used in aromatherapy, and they may be responsible for relieving pain, reducing anxiety, improving mood, and inducing sleepiness. When those terpenes are combined with cannabinoids (as they occur in the cannabis plant), they can work together to have an even greater impact on your endocannabinoid system.
Studies generally suggest that cannabis is a safe alternative to prescription pills for numerous conditions. Many individuals who use cannabis for a medical condition are able to reduce their dependence on pharmaceutical drugs, including opiates. Of course, cannabis will affect different individuals in different ways. If you feel as though cannabis could help improve your quality of life, talk to your doctor about making cannabis a part of your treatment plan.
Unfortunately, many questions still remain when it comes to how effective cannabis can be at treating medical conditions. For some medical conditions, we know how cannabis works with the body to provide relief. For other medical conditions, cannabis seems to be effective in many patients, but scientists are still figuring out how cannabis is helping those conditions and by which pathways in the body. Some skeptics believe that medical cannabis claims are exaggerated while others doubt the medicinal properties of cannabis altogether. You may be wondering why someone would be skeptical about cannabis use; we’ll dive into that topic in our next WeEdu installment, The Soft Science of Cannabis. Tune in next time to learn about the arguments against cannabis and the various ways legislation has stymied cannabis research through the years.
Photo: Rachel Dickson