Dystonia and Medical Marijuana

By Gooey Rabinski | June 24, 2015

Many are aware of the medical efficacy of cannabis for major diseases like epilepsy, cancer, and multiple sclerosis (MS). Most people, however, aren’t familiar with a devastating disease called dystonia. Similar in effect to MS, dystonia is a neurological movement disorder characterized by sustained involuntary muscle contractions that cause painful twisting of the body and abnormal postures. It afflicts 300,000 people in North America alone.

The condition is so severe that voluntary movements can cause it to worsen. Possible causes of dystonia are lead and carbon monoxide poisoning, genetic inheritance, physical trauma (especially to the brain), infections, and stroke. It may even be caused by pharmaceutical drugs, particularly neuroleptics, a type of psychiatric medication commonly used to treat schizophrenia and bi-polar disorder.


Like MS, dystonia is a severe, life-altering disease that prevents sufferers from leading normal lives, including holding jobs, being parents, and even walking to the mailbox each day. It is typically accompanied by severe chronic pain, depression, and limited social interactions. Despite the low level of social awareness of this ailment, it is the third most common movement disorder, following Parkinson’s disease.

Studies Reveal Significant Efficacy

In 2002, The Journal of Pain and Symptom Management published a case study of the efficacy of cannabis for a 42-year-old dystonia patient suffering severe chronic pain. Before consuming cannabis, the patient reported a subjective pain level of 9 on a scale of 0-10. Following smoking marijuana, the patient reported her subjective pain as zero. Additionally, the patient required no pharmaceutical pain killers for the following 48 hours.

Reported the authors of the study:

“No other treatment intervention to date had resulted in such dramatic overall improvement in condition.”

In 2004, the Journal of Movement Disorders published a case study involving a 25-year-old dystonia sufferer who experienced ““significant clinical improvement” following treatment with medical cannabis. That same year, a German research team at the Hannover Medical School conducted a placebo-controlled trial involving a 38-year-old professional pianist. Given only 5 mg of THC, the patient was able to play “technically demanding” music (impossible prior to treatment) and experienced a “clear improvement of motor control.”

A 1986 study published in the International Journal of Neuroscience involved five dystonia patients. Over a six-week period, participants were given 100 to 600 mg of CBD per day. Researchers noted a 20-50 percent improvement in patients. Based on the fact that pain management is one of the biggest concerns for dystonia sufferers, administration of CBD may be helpful for many other diseases involving chronic pain and neurological issues, such as epilepsy — for which CBD has shown significant efficacy.

Subjective Reports

Despite the lack of clinical studies into the efficacy of medical cannabis for dystonia, a great deal of anecdotal evidence supports that treatment with the herb may significantly improve the lives of sufferers. One patient in British Columbia, Dennis Lillico, reported that his dystonia results in not only pain, but also severe depression. His involuntary movements are stress induced.

Dystonia sufferer Dennis Lillico

“[My doctors] have documented in their records that even the best medical drugs out there, the newest drugs out there, are only working for 1 percent of this disability,” said Lillico, “whereas cannabis helps me with 90 percent.”

“I do believe, with what modern science has to offer me, that cannabis is the best medication possible for my condition. Cannabis is the only medicine that has given me any relief.”

Michelle Weber, a 47-year-old dystonia patient, reported:

“[Dystonia] is devastating to people socially and economically. We’re not the glamour illness. We don’t have the celebrity spokesman.”

Research is beginning to reveal the significant efficacy of cannabis for a wide range of neurological disorders like MS and dystonia. Despite decades of powerful anecdotal evidence and a small amount of clinical study data, the federal government continues to classify marijuana as a Schedule I drug, meaning it has zero medical value and isn’t readily available for clinical trials in the United States.

Those who aren’t aware of the efficacy of cannabis for dystonia — or aren’t lucky enough to live in a state with legal medical marijuana — will continue to needlessly suffer.

Photo credit: AidansMom

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Gooey Rabinski

Gooey Rabinski is the author of Understanding Medical Marijuana.

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