ALS and Medical Marijuana

By Gooey Rabinski | July 10, 2015

Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, or ALS (also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease), is a progressive neurological condition that affects the muscular motor function of the limbs and vital organs. ALS afflicts more than 30,000 Americans; it is most common in patients who are 30-60 years old. It is estimated that 5,500 Americans are diagnosed with this condition each year.

Brought to public attention by 2014’s viral celebrity-filled ALS Bucket Challenge internet videos, common symptoms of ALS include muscle weakness, muscle spasms, depression, lack of appetite, and debilitating loss of coordination.

The condition sometimes affects face and neck muscles, resulting in changes in speech and drooling. ALS results in the degeneration and death of specialized nerves, called motor neurons, located in the brain and spinal cord that control voluntary muscles. Thus, their degradation results in everyday challenges with regard to motor skills and simple movements — and, in extreme cases, paralysis.

Cause Unknown

ALS is a progressive condition; most patients die within three to five years of diagnosis (half die within 2.5 years, although about 10 percent survive for ten years). Death results from the failure of respiratory muscles. Unfortunately, there is no cure and treatment options are limited. Although the cause of ALS is unknown, it has been found to be related to an overabundance of an antioxidant that collects free radicals. It is theorized that these free radicals are what cause damage to the motor neurons that control involuntary movement.

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Dr. Gary Carter, Medical Director of the St. Luke’s Rehabilitation Institute in Spokane, Washington — and an expert in treating neuromuscular disorders — has witnessed many ALS patients benefit from the use of cannabis. He said:

“We know more about cannabis than 95 percent of other medicines. Cannabis is custom made to treat ALS.”

The Cannabinoids

Those familiar with the entourage effect will understand that a complex interaction of multiple cannabinoids, with some enhancing or buffering the effects of others, is involved in the treatment of any condition with marijuana. For ALS specifically, the following cannabinoids are especially beneficial. ALS patients wanting to treat themselves with cannabis should seek strains high in the following cannabinoids.

  • THC: Reduces inflammation and pain.
  • CBD: Relieves muscle spasms, reduces inflammation, and a powerful anti-oxidant.
  • CBN: Reduces muscle spasticity (anti-convulsant)
  • THCv: Reduces inflammation.
  • CBC: Reduces inflammation, kills pain (an analgesic) and promotes brain growth.

Case Studies

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In 1985, Cathy Jordan began experiencing difficulty with basic motor skills, such as picking up items. In 1986, she was diagnosed with ALS; doctors gave her three to five years to live. In the late 1980s, Jordan began treating herself with cannabis, gaining significant benefit from the herb.

When Jordan informed her doctors that she was treating herself with an illegal substance, however, many of them reacted with a prohibitionist mindset and clear lack of compassion.

“I visited a neurologist at Duke University. When I told him that I was smoking cannabis, he didn’t know what to do with me. He was afraid. He wouldn’t even take my blood pressure because I was using an illegal drug.”

Unfortunately, several of Jordan’s doctors refused to accept that marijuana was responsible for her successful treatment of ALS and her extended life span. Some physicians even threatened to have Jordan committed — just because she used an illegal substance and reported significant benefits.

Jordan reported in 2012:

“All my docs are retiring or dead. I’ve outlived five support groups and four neurologists.”

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Mark Bushey, a radio broadcaster in Maine, was diagnosed with ALS in November 2013. Several months later, he began using medical cannabis to combat his symptoms. Bushey reported that use of cannabis has resulted in less pain, better appetite, improved breathing, and better sleep. A former pharmaceutical rep, Buckey was very familiar with the potential to become addicted to or overdose on conventional pain medications. He said:

“The marijuana doesn’t have side effects and it doesn’t interact with anything. And it really makes me feel good.”

Research Studies

Anecdotal reports of the efficacy of cannabis for ALS indicate that it alleviates symptoms like pain, appetite loss, depression and drooling. It is also believed that the consumption of cannabis can slow the development of the disease.

In 2001, a group of researchers published a review of the existing literature pertaining to the treatment of ALS with cannabis in the American Journal of Hospice & Palliative Care. They found that a wide variety of symptoms caused by ALS can be alleviated via the use of medical marijuana, including pain, spasticity, wasting, drooling, and depression.

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In 2004, researchers at the California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco reported in the journal Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis & Other Motor Neuron Disorders that THC, one of the primary cannabinoids in marijuana, prevented progression of the condition, extending the survival of the animals studied by the group.

A 2007 study conducted by a university research group in Madrid, Spain concluded that the cannabinoids found in marijuana offer neuroprotective properties for a variety of diseases, including ALS and multiple sclerosis.

“This potential is based on the antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and anti-excitotoxic properties exhibited by these compounds.”

A 2009 study conducted in Spain found that cannabinoids are helpful in the treatment of several neurological ailments, including ALS, Alzheimer’s disease, multiple sclerosis, and Huntington’s disease.

Need for Clinical Research

The need for more research and human clinical trials regarding treatment of ALS with cannabis is paramount.

A team of researchers at the University of Washington Medical Center in Seattle in 2010 reported in the American Journal of Hospice & Palliative Medicine that it had found an “overwhelming” amount of clinical evidence to warrant a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study of cannabis.

Concluded the study:

“Based on the currently available scientific data, it is reasonable to think that cannabis might significantly slow the progression of ALS, potentially extending life expectancy and substantially reducing the overall burden of the disease.”

Photo credit: celebstoner.com, New York Times, blog.amsvans.com

Gooey Rabinski

Gooey Rabinski is the author of Understanding Medical Marijuana.

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