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Muscular dystrophy is a group of more than 30 distinct diseases that weakens muscles and interferes with movement. The condition is characterized by the loss of skeletal muscle tissue, resulting in extreme weakness, painful muscle spasms, and even deformities of the spine and hands. These conditions typically lead to a loss of the ability to sit up or walk and, in more severe cases, an inability to swallow or breath unassisted.

Like some types of multiple sclerosis and many other diseases, muscular dystrophy is progressive — meaning it continually advances and only worsens. It is the result of defects in muscle proteins and the death of muscle cells and tissue. The root cause of muscular dystrophy is inherited genetic defects.

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Of those who are affected, one-third may suffer from cognitive impairment and problems with vision and speech. Muscular dystrophy disproportionately affects children, typically limiting the mobility of patients to the point that they cannot walk and sometimes can’t feed or care for themselves. It can manifest itself from infancy to middle age. The severity of the disease is somewhat determined by the age at which patients become afflicted.

Accurate statistics for muscular dystrophy are few and far between; the condition is less common than many other diseases. About 15 out of 100,000 males who were five to 24 years old were affected in the United States in 2007. That’s nearly 50,000 new cases of muscular dystrophy that year alone.

The most common type of muscular dystrophy is Duchenne, also known as DMD. It affects males between the ages of three and five and progresses rapidly. Another common variety is myontic muscular dystrophy, which typically strikes adults and progresses more slowly. While some perceive celebrity physicist and mathematician Stephen Hawking to have muscular dystrophy, he actually has a rare form of ALS.

Cannabis Useful for Symptoms

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It is theorized that relatively few muscular dystrophy patients are medicating with cannabis, possibly because so many are children and their parents are ignorant of the medical benefits of the plant — or hold religious beliefs that, ironically, prevent them from considering the herb. Those who do leverage marijuana to relieve their symptoms gain relief from pain, muscle spasms, drooling, loss of appetite, and insomnia. One of the most commonly reported benefits of consuming cannabis by muscular dystrophy patients is a good night’s sleep.

It is estimated that two-thirds of muscular dystrophy patients suffer from secondary chronic pain resulting from muscle cramps, spasms, pressure sores, and muscle twitches. Often, opiates are prescribed to deal with the pain, resulting in a slew of negative side effects, including vomiting, dizziness, respiratory problems, nausea, and difficulty urinating — not to mention the risk of addiction (something cannabis, fortunately, doesn’t feature).

Because muscular dystrophy is a disease with no known cure, the primary goal of treatment is to keep patients comfortable and free of pain. Unlike a condition such as cancer or Crohn’s, in which treatment with cannabis has been known to put the diseases into remission, treating muscular dystrophy patients with cannabis is simply a way of improving their quality of life.

Whether marijuana is decreasing chronic pain, wiping out insomnia, reducing depression, or simply alleviating the embarrassment of drooling into one’s wheelchair, it has proven efficacy for those who are faced with no cure and a dire future as their condition worsens. Given the terminal nature of the ailment, cannabis would show tremendous value if consumed only for the purpose of alleviating depression. However, it also shows tremendous benefit by the simple fact that it can prevent patients from becoming addicted to pharmaceutical pain killers.

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Because muscular dystrophy sufferers often experience respiratory problems, smoking isn’t the best route of ingestion. While edibles are commonly available in many states that have legalized medical marijuana, they also aren’t the best solution for those suffering from chronic pain because of slow onset (typically an hour or longer for full strength). Vaporization is simply the best way muscular dystrophy patients can consume cannabis, delivering rapid onset and none of the problems associated with smoking.

The Studies

Unfortunately, due to the Schedule I status of marijuana in the United States, very little solid research has been conducted on how cannabis provides relief for sufferers of muscular dystrophy. However, muscular dystrophy is very similar to Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, or ALS (also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease), for which cannabis has been proven to provide great relief (one woman diagnosed with ALS was given two to five years to live — nearly 30 years ago). Thus, it is believed that cannabis can deliver much of the same relief to muscular dystrophy patients as it does for those suffering from ALS.

In 1977, a study was published in Forensic Science that indicated that THC and CBD are helpful for treating muscular dystrophy. Due to the age of the study, however, its full text is unavailable, obscuring its details.

Patient Testimonials

Adult muscular dystrophy patients have reported that cannabis helps a wide variety of their symptoms. The two most commonly cited advantages are a decrease in pain and a full night’s sleep. In the terse words of one patient: “Less pain, more sleep.”

Christa Mae, a muscular dystrophy patient in California, began using medical cannabis to treat her symptoms. Despite being extremely conservative and against all illegal drugs, Mae was willing to try cannabis due to the severity of her symptoms (she is wheelchair bound and has difficulty talking).

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Mae described her use of cannabis as “life changing” during an interview at a medical marijuana dispensary.

“Pain will make you try many things. [When] I tried cannabis, it was like three inhalations, six minutes, [and] the pain was gone. The evidence was enough for me.”

Chad Folsom is a 31-year-old muscular dystrophy patient from Denver, Colorado. He has a severe form of muscular dystrophy that is extremely rare. Despite the debilitating nature of his condition, he said doctors treated him as a “drug seeker” because his prescribed drugs were ineffective or carried too many negative side effects, forcing Folsom to continue looking for a viable solution.

“The pills never worked. I always knew, even from the first time, that there was something in cannabis. That it did something different to me that nothing else did. As I got older, in my late teens, I started learning the medical aspects of it.”

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Unlike his pharmaceutical drugs, Folsom pointed out how he liked that cannabis conveyed almost no negative side effects and there was no risk of overdose or addiction. “I can take as much as I want of this and it won’t hurt me.”

During an interview, Folsom described how he always informed doctors, who he said simply wanted to prescribe pharmaceutical drugs, that he had gained benefit from cannabis. “I would go to the doctors and…I would say that I use cannabis and that it’s doing something for me. I’m able to eat. I’m able to sleep. I’m able to function every day. I’m able to be a productive member of society.”

Unfortunately, Folsom reported how most doctors fought his use of marijuana. He even had doctors drug test him and say, “If you wanna be on these pills, we’re gonna drug test you. Because I told them I used cannabis. I thought you were supposed to be honest with your doctor and tell them everything you’re doing.”

When asked how cannabis helps him, Folsom stated that it calms his nerves and helps his PTSD. “I’m able to be happier. I’m not depressed. I have a better outlook on life. I owe the plant everything. It changed my life.” Folsom added how he has replaced all pharmaceutical drugs with medical marijuana.

“For years now, I have no need for pills. I am solely dependent on cannabis for all my medical needs.”

Ed Edgar is a middle aged man from Palmyra, Virginia who suffers from muscular dystrophy, which he has had all of his life. He experiences extreme weakness and chronic pain. “The best description of the kind of pain is, if you’ve ever had the flu really bad, and you have that deep, aching pain. It’s like that.”

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Edgar explained how doctors will prescribe him basically any type of barbiturate that he wants. “I have a prescription for Percocet and methadone. I take methadone every day and Percocet as needed.” Unfortunately, he also described the negative side effects of the drugs that help keep him mobile and battle his pain.

“I can’t stand them. They make me sick as a dog every time I take them. But I have to take something to knock the edge off.”

Edgar discovered that cannabis might be helpful when reading Quest magazine, a publication for sufferers of muscular dystrophy. “They were saying [cannabis] seemed to be one of the few things that actually worked on the pain.” Unlike many patients, whose doctors are ignorant of the medical efficacy of marijuana, one of his doctors at a pain management center actually recommended cannabis. Two of his current physicians encourage his use of marijuana because of the extreme relief it delivers.

When asked if he benefits from use of cannabis for his muscular dystrophy, Edgar replied:

“It’s one of the only things that works on me. The narcotics they give me basically knock me out. I can’t function. If I would take the drugs they give me, at the level they give me, I couldn’t work; I couldn’t do anything.”

Edgar explained how, if he took his pharmaceutical drugs as prescribed, he’d be “a zombie.” He described how, under conventional painkillers, he would be “stumbling all over the place.” Without cannabis, Edgar was relegated to either living with pain or existing in a heavily drugged, narcotic state.

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Need for Research

Until more research is conducted, advocates of medical marijuana for muscular dystrophy will be unable to provide clinical evidence to prohibitionists for why cannabis is an effective treatment for the disease. Powerful testimonials are available, however, from patients of all ages.

For those who suffer from conditions like ALS, multiple sclerosis, and muscular dystrophy, cannabis is an effective way to deal with pain, depression, and insomnia — without the negative side effects of prescription drugs.

Photo credit: diseasespictures.com

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