Traumatic brain injury (TBI) refers to injuries sustained by blows to the head. If those injuries to the cranium affect the brain and disturb the delicate distribution of neuronal pathways, all kinds of unpleasant things can happen. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, TBIs contribute to 30 percent of all injury deaths. Survivors have a good chance of suffering disabilities for the rest of their lives. Rates of TBI deaths have been decreasing annually since 2001. Currently about 52,000 people die from TBIs every year (more than 150 percent more than die from car accidents). More than five million people live with injuries caused by TBIs (more than the number suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease).
Interventions in Traumatic Brain Injury Cases
Initial treatment stabilizes the individual to prevent further damage. Then treatment involves minimizing other injury and maintaining or improving blood flow to the brain to facilitate repair and healing. Sometimes surgery helps to unclog blood vessels and improve oxygen distribution to brain cells, as well as reducing swelling in the brain and pressure from the confines of the skull. In other words, there is usually not much that can be done actively. Doctors principally maintain the best conditions for natural healing. Dealing with unconsciousness, maintaining breathing, monitoring the bodily functions that are controlled by low-level brain functions, like breathing and heart-rate are about all that can be done.
- Dilantin (the anti-seizure drug usually used for epilepsy) is often administered.
- Body temperature is maintained at low to normal levels to reduce the need for oxygen.
- Narcotic sedation is often given in severe cases to cause a state of paralysis to keep the patient still and comfortable.
- Mannitol is given to “pull fluid” from the brain case, reduce blood pressure and lower the pressure on the brain.
Cannabis and the Brain
Controlled studies find cannabinoids may be used to treat traumatic brain injury. Cannabis has been found to be a “neuro-protective” agent.
In one controlled study published in 2014, patients with severe TBI, given THC (cannabinoid) treatment showed significantly higher survival rates compared to a control group not given THC. In the THC treatment group only 2 died (2.4 percent) compared to 42 (11.5 percent) of the control group.
Following a blow to the head, the body releases “harmful mediators” that lead to toxicity, oxidative stress and inflammation and can cause death independent of brain cell damage itself. Cannabis has been shown to offer protection to the neural system, reducing the amount of brain damage.
- In mice with brain injury, cannabinoid (CBD) administration caused a significant reduction in brain swelling compared to a control group (a 2010 study).
- In pigs with brain injury, CBD reduced brain inflammation and oxidative stress (a 2013 study).
- Newborn human babies who suffered brain injury received significant neuroprotective benefit from CBD administration (a 2013 study).
- One study found that patients who had detectable levels of THC in their bodies were less likely to die from traumatic brain injury than those who didn’t (a 2014 study).
Repeated studies have shown that THC provides a protective effect, reducing the kinds of harmful substances the body itself produces after a traumatic brain injury. In other words, cannabis works in concert with conventional handling of brain injured patients. Cannabis slows traumatic brain injury damage and further enables natural healing. Israeli researchers (who have taken the lead in exploring the benefits of THC derived substances) have shown that administering THC before or shortly after the injury can prevent long-term brain damage.
“Administering just a fraction of the amount of THC that would be found in a typical marijuana joint induces chemical processes necessary to protect critical brain cells while preserving long-term cognitive function.”
There is a lot of testimonial evidence (not well analyzed) that cannabis can help people who have experienced TBI on a long-term follow-up basis. So far, there are no large follow-up studies on the efficacy of cannabis as an ongoing treatment in TBI patients. It as an area well worth studying.
This post was originally published on May 30, 2017, it was updated on October 5, 2017.