Can Cannabis Treat Parkinson’s Disease?
Parkinson’s Disease is a progressive disorder of the nervous system that manifests itself with tremors and rigidity of muscles that result in slow and difficult to control movements. Common manifestations include a shuffling step, balance difficulties, and difficulty initiating movement or “freezing” in mid-motion. The condition sometimes devolves into involuntary muscle spasms and jerking tics. Although the exact cause of Parkinson’s has not been established, it causes reduced dopamine levels that affect neurotransmitter activity in the brain. It is undetermined whether Parkinson’s has a genetic component. Although 15% of sufferers have a family history, a compilation of research suggests that the root of Parkinson’s involves mutation of a growing list of about 20 identified genes. This suggests Parkinson’s could have either genetic or environmental causes.
Parkinson’s is the second most prevalent neurodegenerative disorder, behind Alzheimer’s, affecting an estimated seven to ten million people, globally. It usually manifests itself in middle-aged to elderly people. A compendium of research compiled by Hirsch et al. in 2016 analyzed and compared the results of 27 Parkinson’s studies. It concluded that the incidence of Parkinson’s generally increases with age. Four percent of sufferers are diagnosed before age 50, and the frequency increases with age—up to the age of 80—where it levels off. By age 80, it is estimated that just above 2 percent of the population will develop Parkinson’s. Men are 1.5 times more likely to suffer from the condition. It is unclear why, but theories range from estrogen in women having properties that protect the nervous system, to men suffering a disproportionate number of head injuries compared to their female counterparts.
A secondary concern of Parkinson’s is the tendency for some patients to develop Lewy bodies. These are abnormal protein deposits in the brain that affect the neurochemical balance, resulting in disruptions with thinking, movement, behaviour, and mood. Lewy Parkinson’s can often develop into Dementia, so much so that it is only surpassed by Alzheimer’s as a precursor. This underlines the importance of treatment before Parkinson’s advances.
Fortunately, cannabis is showing promising results in both retarding Parkinson’s progression and treating current symptoms. Leading researchers in Israel have been studying the medical effects of cannabis for at least a decade longer than those in Europe or North America. The Israeli Ministry of Health officially indicates cannabis as a treatment for Parkinson’s when conventional treatments are unsuccessful. An Israeli research study headed by Dr. Tanya Gurevich found “76.9% of patients reported cannabis had positive effect on their general condition and mood, 64% reported improvement in pain and spasticity, (and) 59% reported decreased tremors and improved quality of sleep”. Research also suggests Parkinson’s dystonia—the part of the disorder that compromises involuntary muscle movements and vocal difficulties—is also effectively controlled with CBD use. CBD is the non-psychoactive component of cannabis. This is especially valuable for Parkinson’s patients who have balance or degenerative cognitive aspects to their Parkinson’s—as well as an asset to caregivers who take care of those in advanced stages.
The primary pharmaceutical used for Parkinson’s, Sinemet, has a plethora of common side effects that include dizziness, drowsiness, blurred vision, nausea, vomiting, dry mouth, loss of appetite and heartburn. Of greater concern, it can sometimes worsen the tremors commonly associated with Parkinson’s. Sinemet can also cause more serious physical reactions such as cardiovascular and respiratory problems. Psychologically, it has been known to cause memory impairment and severe psychotic episodes including delusions, hallucinations and paranoia. Considering this, cannabis is a safer, more attractive alternative.
Using cannabis medicinally for any condition usually initiates a debate whether THC, the psychoactive component, or CBD, its non-psychoactive counterpoint is the effective treatment component. For some conditions it is one more than the other. With Parkinson’s, it’s both the yin and yang. It appears the Entourage Effect—the synergistic ability of CBD and THC to propel each other to a higher level of effectiveness together—seems to be the best approach with Parkinson’s Disease. THC helps with tremors, while CBD is effective with mobility and mood—as patients tend to become depressed with their progressively challenging condition. As a cannabis counsellor who deals with many medical patients with Parkinson’s, I can attest to the fact that success rates using cannabis have widely variable rates of success. Most patients find some level of relief. Some have quite remarkable levels of improvement, as this link to this video demonstrates. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=seJVDDRNpuA
Of course, those who show improvement with tremors or involuntary movement are most noticeable, but Parkinson’s patients and their families and caregivers report progress in other areas of the condition that aren’t as noticeable such as vocal ability, better balance, increased mobility and less freezing of movement. Although we have a great deal more to learn with research, it is gratifying to know that cannabis is a non-intrusive, effective treatment option to at least minimize the insidious manifestation of Parkinson’s symptoms and, perhaps further research will show, slow or prevent its progression.
Rick Gillman is a medical cannabis patient, consultant, and veteran freelance writer. He is involved in medical cannabis research and breeding projects--creating more effective medicine. He works for Canadian Cannabis Clinics as a Medical Outreach Educator out of the Collingwood, Ontario clinic.