Epilepsy is a serious medical condition affecting approximately one percent of the United State’s population. Many individuals with epilepsy suffer from severe seizures, which may not respond to available treatments. Recent attention has turned to using medical marijuana and its derivatives to treat epilepsy and other seizure disorders. Newsworthy cases have turned up in recent years showing even children can benefit from using medical marijuana to treat epilepsy. Understanding epilepsy, current medical treatments, and how marijuana could help can provide insight on whether medical marijuana is an appropriate treatment for your epileptic seizures.
What is Epilepsy?
Epilepsy is a neurological or brain disorder that causes issues with neuron signaling in the brain. Its most common and widely recognized symptom is seizures, which can range in severity from causing a person to appear dazed to an episode of violent total-body muscle spasms. An individual’s epileptic disorder may have no known cause or may have been caused by illnesses, injuries, or abnormal development that affects the brain. Due to the severity of seizures and the potential impact on day to day life, most individuals with epilepsy or seizure disorders require treatment to manage their condition. Even with medical treatment, many individuals suffer symptoms severe enough to prevent them from being able to drive a car or complete other activities and affect their ability to learn at school or perform in the workplace.
Epileptic seizures generally fall into one of two broad categories – partial seizures, which affect a specific area of the brain, and generalized seizures, which occur over the entire service of the brain. Within each of these categories are various types of seizures. The wide variety of seizure types result in a variety of epilepsy symptoms. Symptoms can include:
- Various types of seizures
- Staring into space
- Violent muscle spasms
- Strange sensations
- Hearing, seeing, or smelling things that others do not
- Abnormal emotional response
- Behavior changes
- Loss of consciousness
- Memory gaps, blackouts, or memory loss
- Unusual clumsiness
- Repeated movements
- Sudden sleepiness or frequent sleepiness
- Trouble swallowing
The Center for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that greater than 4.3 million adults and 750,000 children in America have been diagnosed with some form of epilepsy or seizure disorder. With this large number of people affected and the severity of the impact seizures can have, additional emphasis must be put on finding a more effective treatment or a cure for this disorder.
Treatments for Epilepsy
There is currently no medical cure for epilepsy, however, a variety of treatments exist for controlling the symptoms of epilepsy and preventing seizures. Common medical treatments include medications designed to prevent seizures, surgical intervention in the brain, or implanted devices like vagus nerve stimulators. With the variety of types of epilepsy, treatment plans must be tailored to the individual and may require a combination of therapies to successfully control the condition. Unfortunately, approximately one-third of all epilepsy patients have a form that does not respond to conventional treatments, according to the Epilepsy Foundation. Even when medication is able to control seizures, all anti-seizure medications require a risk-benefit analysis to determine if their benefits outweigh the associated side effects. Finding this balance can be very challenging for many patients, especially children.
In addition to conventional medical treatments, many patients have found other methods for improving epilepsy symptoms and reducing seizures. Many organizations, including the CDC and the Epilepsy Foundation, recommend certain dietary or nutritional changes may aid in controlling symptoms and allow epilepsy patients to reduce seizures. John Hopkins Medicine has even created a modified version of the Atkins diet to support epileptic patients. Another non-traditional treatment for epilepsy that has received quite a bit of attention in recent years is the use of medical marijuana. Although even a medical marijuana card online remains illegal at the federal level preventing medical research on its benefits as a drug, many individual cases of successful treatment of seizure disorders with various forms of medical cannabis has shown that marijuana helps seizures.
Medical Marijuana for Seizure Control
With roughly 30% of all cases of epilepsy classified as untreatable, the push to find an alternative therapy led some individuals to try marijuana as a treatment. These stories of personal success with the use of medical marijuana as a treatment and claims that marijuana cures seizures resulted in several scientific studies to determine the validity of these claims. In 2013, the story of an eight year old girl in Colorado who was able to control her epilepsy with an unconventional, cannabis-based treatment known as Charlotte’s Web drew public attention. This was one of the first times that medical marijuana was directly, publicly credited with controlling a previously uncontrollable form of epilepsy. Since that time, additional research has been used to determine if marijuana cures epilepsy.
The Epilepsy Foundation indicates that cannabidiol or CBD, a cannabinoid found in marijuana, has shown some positive effects on the body and indicates it could have a beneficial effect on seizures in some individuals. They also reported on multiple studies that have shown an improvement in seizure occurrence for patients who were undergoing treatment with CBD. A study conducted by Orrin Devinksy, a New York University Longone Medical Center neurologist, demonstrated that patients undergoing CBD treatments experienced an average of 36.5 percent improvement in seizure occurrences, with two percent of individuals in the study becoming seizure free. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has even approved the use of a drug called Epidiolex, which is an 99 percent CBD oil, for use in some epilepsy centers for patients who do not respond to other treatments.
What is most significant in studies and cases like these is that individuals who saw improvement in seizures and other symptoms while using CBD included people that were unresponsive to other conventional treatments. This is a major point for those who are dissatisfied with available treatments or do not find the relief they need. The way medical marijuana improves epilepsy is not fully understood, however. The body’s endocannabinoid system provides anti-seizure support by regulating the nervous system, and it appears that the cannabinoids in medical marijuana may be able to do the same. More research is needed to determine exactly how medical marijuana reduces seizures and other symptoms, but the link between CBDs and seizures has been made evident.
Medical Marijuana for Seizures in Children
Some of the patients who struggle the most with conventional epilepsy treatments are children. Treatment methods that use CBD to treat seizures could be very beneficial for treating these children. The reduction in side effects and the ability to control seizure types that other medications provide little or no relief for makes using medical marijuana to treat children with seizures an option that requires more focus. Orrin Devinsky of the CBD study suggests that the risk of using CBD to treat a child with an otherwise untreatable form of epilepsy carries a low to moderate risk and offers the benefit of greater symptom improvement. Still, little research has been directed at how CBD treatments could affect children. Many parents with epileptic children have turned to CBD treatments and the number of reports continue to grow showing individual cases of children experiencing symptom improvement with CBD.
Why are People Turning to Marijuana to Treat Epileptic Seizures?
Although more research may be needed to determine how marijuana reduces seizures and what the long-term effects of using it as an anti-seizure medication are, many people are turning to medical marijuana as an epilepsy treatment. One of the main reasons that many individuals are using marijuana as a treatment is that it has been shown to work when no other treatments have. For individuals who have forms of epilepsy that are untreatable with conventional medications, cannabis offers new hope. Its ability to reduce seizures and in some cases eliminate them has been well documented by those who have found relief when nothing else worked.
Another common reason some people use medical marijuana as a seizure treatment is the lower risk of side effects and less serious side effects associated with cannabis-based treatments when compared to conventional medicines. Common side effects of anti-seizure medications include fatigue, vision changes, nausea and vomiting, depression, lack of appetite, hyperactivity, headache, and even drooling. In some cases, these side effects are so severe that patients are unable to continue taking the medication. The risk of side effects with medical marijuana are not as well documented, but in the medical studies were considered insignificant. The most common side effect with CBD oil was diarrhea, which was attributed to the ingestion of an oil-based medication as it also appeared in patients who took the placebo.
As you can see, the research shows that medical marijuana could be a powerful treatment for many epilepsy patients. The evidence of marijuana causing seizures to reduce in frequency and severity continues to grow. For the large number of epileptics who cannot be treated using conventional methods, medical cannabis holds an even greater promise.
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