Brain inflammation, a family of conditions that includes encephalitis and meningitis, afflicts thousands of people in the United States. As its name suggests, it is characterized by a swelling of the brain (and sometimes spinal cord) and often triggered by a viral infection or, less often, a bacterial infection. Conditions involving brain inflammation are life threatening and can result in coma or death.
Inflammation of the brain has been linked to Alzheimer’s and depression, among other conditions. Cannabis medicine is especially effective at treating any disease or ailment caused by or related to inflammation. In fact, decreasing inflammation in diseases such as arthritis, asthma, cancer, and Crohn’s is one of the primary benefits of cannabis therapy. A study published in the American Surgeon Journal even suggests that the neuroprotective effects of cannabis may increase a person’s chances of surviving a brain injury.
Major Types of Brain Inflammation
This article considers two major manifestations of brain inflammation: Encephalitis and meningitis. Encephalitis is a swelling of the brain itself; meningitis is acute inflammation of the three thin, delicate membranes that cover the brain called meninges. These membranes serve the function of cushioning the brain against physical shocks and concussions, among other things.
Meninges are the primarily cause of headaches in those with alcohol hangovers and result from drinkers becoming dehydrated. This causes the meninges to literally dry out, depriving them of cushioning in the form of water, and results in them wrapping tightly around the brain — causing pain in the form of a headache. This mechanism reveals why consuming water and remaining hydrated during and after drinking sessions helps prevent headaches resulting from drinking and hangover. It also gives anyone who has suffered a hangover-driven headache a small idea of the pain suffered by those with meningitis.
Approximately 2,000 cases of encephalitis are reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta each year. In 2013, the disease killed 77,000 people globally. Between 2003 and 2007, roughly 4,100 cases of bacterial meningitis were reported in the U.S. annually, resulting in about 500 deaths each year.
Encephalitis is an inflammation of the brain that is typically caused by a direct viral infection (such as herpes) or a hyper-sensitivity reaction to a virus or foreign protein. Inflammation resulting from a bacterial infection is called cerebritis. When both the brain and spinal cord are involved, the disorder is labeled encephalomyelitis.
Encephalitis sometimes results in symptoms that resemble the flu, including fever, headache, muscle and joint pain, and fatigue and weakness. Severe cases may involve confused thinking, double vision, a false perception of foul odors (such as burned meat and rotten eggs), and even seizures. Many cases, however, result in nothing more than mild flu-like symptoms. Surprisingly, some cases of encephalitis involve no symptoms whatsoever. While severe cases are relatively rare, they can result in death if not treated in a timely manner.
Meningitis is typically caused by a bacterial infection and, less often, by viruses, viral infections, and even parasites (such as ticks). The most common and serious form of the disease is pneumococcal meningitis, which results from a bacterial infection. This form of meningitis afflicts more than 5,000 patients each year in the United States alone. Symptoms of meningitis include severe neck stiffness, headache, fever, confusion, and vomiting. It can also cause severe sensitivity to light and sound (photophobia and phonophobia, respectively).
The swelling of the meninges often causes severe pain. Reported one meningitis patient:
“The problem with the brain and the swelling is that the skull ensures that there is no place for the expanded material to go. The pain is excruciating.”
Because one of the most powerful effects of cannabis medicine is as an anti-inflammation agent, it is especially adept at improving the symptoms of conditions like encephalitis and meningitis. The addition of the ability of many cannabinoids like THC and CBD, and terpenes like limonene and pinene to fight pain equals an effective treatment that can not only hasten the recovery of a patient with brain inflammation, but also significantly increase their comfort during the presence of symptoms like severe pain and stiffness.
Little formal research has been conducted regarding the efficacy of cannabis for conditions such as encephalitis and meningitis. However, many patients have volunteered their anecdotal stories in an effort to help provide education and relief to fellow patients and further the global understanding of cannabis as medicine.
Dr. Lester Grinspoon, a noted medical cannabis expert and retired psychiatry professor from Harvard Medical School, maintains a website called Marijuana: The Forbidden Medicine. On it, the accomplished cannabis proponent has published an account of how a college student from Pennsylvania contracted viral meningitis and gained considerable efficacy from cannabis.
Reported the anonymous meningitis patient: “Ever have a mild headache, forget that you have it, bend down to pick up something, and the sharp stabbing sensation reminds you the headache is still there?” He continued:
“Multiply that pain by many times and you may have an appreciation for [meningitis].”
This patient reported that meningitis sufferers gain the benefit of instant relief from swelling and inflammation, as well as the alleviation of pain and other symptoms that can cause permanent damage. “This will buy the patient time for antibiotics to work,” said the patient, describing how he believes cannabis allows a patient’s body to heal without the threat of death or long-term disability.
More Research Needed
Until more research is conducted regarding the medical efficacy of cannabis, including human trials, prescribing physicians, budtenders, and caretakers must rely on anecdotal reports and the scant studies that have been performed regarding the therapy provided by the cannabinoids and terpenes found in the cannabis plant. Cannabis is currently categorized as Schedule I by the federal government, meaning that it legally is considered as dangerous and addictive as heroin and bath salts, two drugs that share this classification.
Even methamphetamine and cocaine are listed in Schedule II, meaning they are viewed by the government to be less addictive than cannabis and can even be prescribed by a physician. Congress must allow universities and research organizations to cultivate and thoroughly experiment with cannabis flowers, concentrates, and edibles. Until this occurs, stakeholders such as patients, medical professionals, and caretakers will remain in the dark regarding the exact strains of cannabis that are most effective for types of brain inflammation such as encephalitis and meningitis.
This post was originally published on January 15, 2016, it was updated on October 5, 2017.