Understanding How Medical Cannabis Treats Parkinson’s Disease

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Parkinson’s Disease is a disorder of the nervous system that affects a person’s ability to control their movement. It is a progressive disease, which means it will continue to gradually worsen over time. For most patients with Parkinson’s, the symptoms will begin as very small and almost imperceptible until they worsen and begin to interfere with the person’s daily life. While there are a few treatment options for Parkinson’s, there is unfortunately no cure and the treatments that are available often have their own negative side effects. The good news is that medical researchers have begun studying how medical cannabis (also known as medical marijuana) can treat Parkinson’s Disease and the results have been very encouraging. Let’s take a closer look at Parkinson’s Disease and how medical cannabis can help treat it.

Understand what Parkinson’s Disease is. Though Parkinson’s has been studied for thousands of years, its first mention in Western medicine is credited to Dr. James Parkinson who published his findings in a paper titled, “An Essay on the Shaking Palsy” in 1817.  In his published paper, Dr. Parkinson wrote down descriptions of the major symptoms of this disease he saw in strangers he met in public as well as his own patients. Dr. Parkinson didn’t know the cause of the tremors affecting these patients, but he theorized that they originated in the part of the brain known as the medulla.  It was not until the 1960s that doctors began to understand how the chemical levels in the brain were actually responsible for Parkinson’s Disease. These doctors noticed that patients with Parkinson’s had a lower level of dopamine which led to nerves found in the substantia nigra part of the brain to not function properly. 

Today, an estimated one million people in the United States have Parkinson’s and the worldwide it may be as many as 10 million people with this disease.  A staggering 60,000 people are diagnosed with Parkinson’s each month. Though both men and women can be diagnosed, men are 1.5 times more likely to be diagnosed with Parkinson’s than women. Parkinson’s Disease is generally diagnosed over the age of 50, but approximately 4% of patients will be diagnosed before that age. A famous example of this is the actor Michael J. Fox, who was diagnosed with Parkinsons at the age of 29.

Symptoms and Causes of Parkinson’s Disease. Generally speaking, the symptoms of Parkinson’s will begin to reveal themselves slowly with, for example, a subtle tremor of one of the hands. Though the symptoms of Parkinson’s can vary from person to person, there are some primary symptoms that are common. These include: tremors when the patient is resting, muscle stiffness or rigidity, bradykinesia or slowed movement, and postural instability. In addition to the primary motor symptoms mentioned, there are a variety of secondary symptoms that often present themselves in patients with Parkinson’s. These secondary symptoms include, but are not limited to: involuntary muscle contractions, progressively smaller handwriting, frozen movements, changes in speech such as slurring, difficulty swallowing, stooped posture, and sexual dysfunction. 

Though these and other motor symptoms are the symptoms which are most commonly associated with Parkinson’s Disease, there are still other symptoms associated which do not have to do with loss of motor skills. Examples of these symptoms include constipation, sleep disorders, and loss of smell. After receiving a diagnosis of Parkinson’s Disease, it’s not uncommon for patients to also experience symptoms like changes in weight, skin issues, fatigue, pain, depression, or anxiety.

Conventional Treatments for Parkinson’s Disease. At this time, there is no cure for Parkinson’s Disease. The conventional treatments for Parkinson’s generally focus on mitigating symptoms and helping the patient be as comfortable as is possible given their limitations. Pharmaceutical medicines are often prescribed in an attempt to increase levels of dopamine in patient’s brains. Medications such as Levodopa are commonly prescribed to boost the levels of dopamine in the patient’s brain. Unfortunately, Levodopa often has the unpleasant side effects of nausea and vomiting and will begin to lose efficacy the longer it is taken. Other side effects of Levodopa are confusion, hallucinations, and low blood pressure. 

In addition to the medications, there are two types of surgical interventions available for Parkinson’s Disease.  The first of these is known as deep brain stimulation. Deep brain stimulation surgery was first approved in 1997 for treating Parkinson’s-related tremors and then in 2002 for treating more advanced symptoms of Parkinson’s. The surgery involves the placement of electrodes in the area of the brain which controls motor functioning. A control device is then implanted close to the shoulders which will send electronic signals directly to the electrodes in the brain. The second type of surgery is one that involves placing a tube through the stomach and into the intestine of the patient. Through this tube, medication such as Levodopa can be directly administered into the intestine for better absorption. 

How Medical Cannabis Helps Parkinson’s Disease. Medical cannabis is quickly becoming a wonderful alternative medicine for patients suffering from Parkinson’s Disease. As discussed above, the conventional pharmaceutical medications prescribed for Parkinson’s often leave patients with many unwanted side effects. These side effects are not present in medical cannabis. Medical cannabis is a safe, non-toxic alternative medicine due to the unique combination of anti-anxiety, antioxidant, and pain relieving properties found in the cannabinoids known as THC and CBD. Medical cannabis has also been known to provide support with muscle rigidity and provide relief for patients suffering with sleep disorders.

The evidence supporting medical cannabis as beneficial for Parkinson’s is more than merely anecdotal. For example, researchers at the University of Louisville Kentucky made a wonderful discovery when they noted that the cannabinoid CBD works as an “inverse antagonist” on the CPR6 receptors located in the brain’s basal ganglia region. This is important because the basal ganglia connects to the cerebral cortex as well as the brainstem and is a driving force for the movement of the body as well as its ability to learn new information and process emotions. By increasing dopamine levels there is a sort of counteracting of the inevitable decrease of dopaminergic neurons that is experienced by patients with Parkinson’s. The cannabinoids found in medical cannabis, such as CBD and THC, can effectively respond with the receptors and provide therapeutic effects against the worst symptoms of Parkinson’s Disease. 

If you or someone you know is considering using medical cannabis to treat Parkinson’s Disease it is advised that a cannabis doctor or reputable medical cannabis practitioner is consulted. There are a variety of methods of ingesting medical cannabis and, depending on the patient’s individual medical needs a preferences, they can choose from methods such as vaporization, edibles, topical oils, full extract oils, and tinctures. In addition to various methods of ingestion there are also a variety of strains of medical cannabis plants. The ideal strain, method of ingestion, and dosage can vary from patient to patient and it is advised that a trusted medical professional is consulted before beginning a medical cannabis protocol.


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