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Parkinson’s Disease And The Potential Of Cannabis Therapy

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by Dr. Nicola Davies

on July 21, 2015

This article was first published by THC Magazine.

Medical marijuana may provide relief for patients with Parkinson’s disease, an ailment which has no known cure. Several pharmaceutical drugs have been manufactured to manage the symptoms, but as with most medications, the side effects can be very severe. However, marijuana is a safe alternative to pharmaceuticals, and it has been shown to be a powerful way to control Parkinson’s disease.

Via: Designua | Shutterstock

Via: Designua | Shutterstock

What Is Parkinson’s Disease?

Parkinson’s disease (PD) is a serious neurological condition that impairs your ability to walk comfortably, make movements, and coordinate effectively. Almost one million Americans are victims of this disease.

Parkinson’s disease occurs when the brain slowly stops generating a neurotransmitter called dopamine, which normally assists in the transmission of signals to the section of the brain that controls movement. The disease affects these nerve cells and, with insufficient production of dopamine, the patient has reduced ability to regulate his or her movements, body, and emotions.

Although the disease itself is not fatal, complications arising from it are very dangerous. In fact, the Center for Disease Control classed complications from Parkinson’s disease as the 14th main cause of fatalities in the U.S. Since the disease affects the body progressively, it becomes worse over time across several years. Most patients’ symptoms take several years to become noticeable.

The key symptoms of Parkinson’s disease are:

  • Tremor, which makes the hands, arms or legs experience shaking or trembling.
  • Stiff muscles or rigidity of the muscles.
  • Muscle movements or dyskinesia.
  • Difficulties in balancing or walking.

Tremor is the initial as well as the most common symptom of the Parkinson’s disease. However, not everyone suffering from the disease will exhibit it. Tremor usually begins in one of the limbs. It may also start being felt in one side of the body. Eventually, the disease will start affecting muscles found throughout the body. This may result in various problems such as difficulties with swallowing food or constipation.

When the Parkinson’s disease has fully developed, a patient may experience a fixed or blank expression, difficulties in speech, and other problems. Some patients also experience a reduction in their cognitive abilities. Parkinson’s symptoms normally begin to be seen when patients are between 50 and 60 years old. However, at times, the symptoms start appearing earlier.

Medications For Parkinson’s Treatment

After starting Parkinson’s disease treatment using medications, patients may begin experiencing notable improvements of their symptoms. With time, though, the benefits of medications normally lessen or become less reliable, even if the symptoms can still be fairly well managed.

Because Parkinson’s is essentially a condition of deficient dopamine in the brain, the most direct solution is to supplement the dopamine. The only problem is that dopamine, by itself, is not able to cross the blood-brain barrier. However, its precursor, levodopa, can enter the brain easily and be converted to dopamine. Since the 1970s, the most effective treatment of Parkinson’s disease symptoms has been a mixture of levodopa and carbidopa (carbidopa-levodopa). The carbidopa works to prevent levodopa from untimely alteration to dopamine before reaching where it is needed the most, namely the brain. This also counters side effects such as vomiting that levodopa can cause.

Over time, as the Parkinson’s disease advances, the gains from levodopa may become less reliable with a proneness to wax and fade (“wearing off”). In addition, the patient may start to experience involuntary muscle movements (referred to as dyskinesia), particularly after long-term treatment with levodopa. At times, the disease may make patients experience strong muscle cramps referred to as dystonia.

There are other drugs that are, at times, used to manage Parkinson’s disease. Most of these medications usually aim to prolong, maintain, or mimic the existing dopamine, but they are not as efficient as levodopa.

Additional medications include:

  • Dopamine agonists — instead of converting into dopamine, these drugs imitate the function of dopamine in the brain.
  • MAO-B inhibitors — they assist in preserving dopamine from being broken down.
  • Anticholinergics — used in managing the tremor that is caused by the disease.
  • Amantadine/Symmetrel — used to offer short-term control of the symptoms of the ailment.
Via: Gordon Swanson | Shutterstock

Via: Gordon Swanson | Shutterstock

Marijuana As A Treatment Option

Marijuana has been employed for many years across the globe as a medicinal herb for a wide array of diseases. During the last few decades there has been increased interest on the use of the herb in treating various diseases, including Parkinson’s disease.

Our bodies already produce cannabinoids which are also present in marijuana. Cannabinoids influence various body processes such as pain and inflammation. Therefore, if someone consumes marijuana, it can assist those natural chemicals to function more efficiently. Specifically, cannabinoids can relieve symptoms, such as dystonia and dyskinesia, which are prevalent in some patients suffering from the Parkinson’s disease.

Cannabidiol (CBD) and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) are the main cannabinoids present in marijuana. When consumed, they have a synergistic effect, which is to lower inflammation, manage spasms, and put off neurological damage. Marijuana is the best candidate for treating Parkinson’s disease, mainly because it does not lead to such serious side effects as the standard medications. Marijuana, particularly the CBD constituent, has neuro-protective (protecting destruction of neurons) characteristics, which may reduce the advancement of Parkinson’s disease.

Several studies have been carried out in the past to illustrate the benefits of marijuana as the best alternative treatment option for Parkinson’s disease. According to a study conducted in 2002 by Dr. Evzin Ruzicka, a neurologist at Charles University in Prague in the Czech Republic, almost 50 percent of patients who were receiving medical marijuana treatment said that the herb assisted them to alleviate the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease.

In another notable study, which was conducted in March 2014, researchers at Tel Aviv University’s Rabin Medical Center in Israel demonstrated how 22 patients with Parkinson’s disease (13 men, 9 women), had their symptoms alleviated as a result of consuming medical marijuana. The researchers discovered that consuming marijuana resulted in significant improvements in the patients’ disease symptoms. Importantly, patients were seen to experience reduced tremors, rigidity, and dyskinesia. In addition, the researchers also observed that patients were able to get better sleep and showed improvement in terms of pain scores. Interestingly, the study did not report any significant adverse effects resulting from the use of the herb in treating Parkinson’s disease.

Even though the studies on the use of marijuana as a potential treatment method for Parkinson’s disease are not conclusive, it is possible to use the herb to relieve symptoms or possibly enhance existing medication to make the treatment more efficient. The herb can assist in managing the adverse side effects of Parkinson’s disease, as it is able to prevent neurological impairment and improve the quality of life of those suffering from the ailment.

Conclusion

Marijuana has been shown to reduce the symptoms associated with Parkinson’s disease. Therefore, this calls for increased research by the medical community to pursue efficient ways of utilizing this herb to alleviate the suffering of Parkinson’s patients. If more research is carried out in the area it could result in better symptom management for patients. In addition, the introduction of efficient ways of administering cannabinoid medicine could contribute to efforts to combat the advancement, and potentially initiation, of Parkinson’s disease.