It’s amazing how many anecdotal stories there are about cannabis treating ailments across the medical spectrum. Encouragingly, the herb has also shown potential in treating rare and debilitating conditions for which we have few, if any, effective treatments – muscular dystrophy (MD) is one such condition where medical cannabis has demonstrated promise.
Marijuana scientists are keenly aware that cannabis influences the body’s muscular system in addition to motor control. Cannabinoids are chemically unique from any other compounds studied, and their unfamiliar way of interacting with the body has experts intrigued. Most cannabis research is still in its early phases, but the remarkable therapeutic effects we already know of has given us a glimpse of just how powerful the plant could be once it’s fully optimized.
In the case of muscular dystrophy, cannabis research is still in its infancy, but scientists are keen to explore it further. In this post, we’ll explain what muscular dystrophy is and detail how medical cannabis may help to treat the condition.
Muscular dystrophy explained
Muscular dystrophy (MD) is an umbrella term for around 40 familial disorders that cause the degeneration and weakening of muscle fibers. The wasting away of muscles that are vital for voluntary body movements can have a debilitating effect, and the condition can leave patients wheelchair-bound – Duchenne muscular dystrophy is a type of MD that leaves many sufferers unable to walk unaided. Usually, muscular dystrophy symptoms appear in a person’s early years, although occasionally the condition does not emerge until well into adulthood.
Muscle degeneration is at the root of muscular dystrophy symptoms, and weak, underdeveloped muscles are often a giveaway that an individual will suffer with the condition. For patients with Duchenne muscular dystrophy, this degeneration tends to manifest in the stomach and thigh muscles. As a result, a child may walk on tip-toes by default.
There are several side effects to muscular dystrophy. These include chronic pain and muscle stiffness, problems standing unaided, regular falls and learning disabilities. In complex cases, patients may be unable to breathe unaided.
How MD patients may benefit from marijuana
We are yet to see any official clinical trials looking at whether marijuana can treat muscular dystrophy in humans, but there are plenty of murmurs that the herb may hold medicinal value. Existing preclinical research has proven enough for researchers to call for further studies.
In 1977, researchers studied the effects of a triumvirate of cannabinoids: the psychoactive tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and the non-psychoactive pairing of cannabidiol (CBD) and cannabinol (CBN). The study involved treating lab mice with a dose of each of these cannabinoids.
The mice were administered a cannabinoid dose of 1mg per every kilogram of weight over a 30-day period. Crude resin was also given to the mice. The researchers were looking to identify if regular doses of marijuana would weaken the muscles of the treated rats. Interestingly, THC helped to prevent muscles from twitching and also – along with CBD and cannabis resin – worked to reduce muscle tension. Contrastingly, CBN improved muscle contraction. Cannabinol is most potent in old strains have cannabis, and this cannabinoid becomes even more prominent if the flower is cured and dried.
The tests did reveal, however, that THC, CBD and CBN reduced levels of muscle protein. Scientists know that muscular dystrophy results from the mutation of genes which are responsible for synthesizing muscle proteins. Therefore, it’s possible that this 1977 study raised more questions than it answered surrounding cannabinoid therapy for muscular dystrophy.
An additional study that year concentrated solely on the effect that continuous THC doses has on the muscles of adult mice. The research found that the cannabinoid has a suppressant effect on muscle tension. While interesting, scientists are more focused on how medical cannabis could be used to treat other ailments.
Marijuana and Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS)
Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), or Lou Gehrig’s disease, is a condition that also affects the muscles, although in a completely different way to muscular dystrophy. MD is a genetic condition, whereas individuals get ALS sporadically. ALS causes the death of neurons responsible for muscle movement control. Subsequently, symptoms worsen quickly for this fatal disease.
But an interesting 2010 study published in the American Journal of Hospice and Palliative Medicine offered solid evidence that marijuana could be beneficial, highlighting the herb’s antioxidative, neuroprotective and anti-inflammatory qualities.
Moreover, a few physical ALS symptoms may also be treatable with cannabis products, thanks to other properties in cannabinoids. The physical symptoms of MD and ALS are fairly similar.
ALS patients may benefit from marijuana’s following properties. Cannabis is an:
- Appetite enhancer
- Muscle relaxant
- Improves sleep
- Reduces sativa
The researchers in the 2010 study suggested that the “next logical step” was to conduct clinical trials on cannabis as a treatment for ALS.
Managing ALS symptoms
We can deduce from the 2010 study that cannabis is a possible treatment for managing painful muscles and the problem of muscles wasting away. There are a list of other trials and preclinical studies which support this notion.
Cannabis products help to relieve pain, reduce muscle tension and spasms and improve quality of life – let’s take a closer look at each one.
1) Cannabis relieves pain
In general, chronic pain is one of the most common ailments that patients try to remedy with medical cannabis. The analgesic properties of marijuana are wide-ranging, with the herb’s cannabinoids handy at easing inflammatory pain, neuropathic pain and chemotherapy-induced pain among cancer patients. MD and ALS patients also turn to cannabis to tackle the pain brought on by muscle deterioration.
A recent trial of multiple sclerosis patients concluded that cannabis could be used to deal with central, neuropathic pain from the condition. Overall, the 66 patients noted that their pain levels reduced following treatment and that their sleep patterns improved.
The oral mucosal spray administered to the participants was made up of a cannabis extract that consisted of an almost-balanced ratio of THC (2.7mg) to CBD (2.5mg). The patients were allowed to take up to 48 sprays of the extract per day.
In 2013, a randomized, placebo-controlled study discovered that microdosing marijuana using a vaporizer is effective at reducing neuropathic pain.
2) Cannabis reduces muscle tension and spasms
A few countries have approved pharmaceutical drugs derived from cannabis to treat muscle spasticity. However, this medication is only available for patients with multiple sclerosis, and not those suffering from muscular dystrophy.
The two conditions are quite separate from each other, however the positive effects that cannabis has on muscle spasticity and tension among MS patients may be of note to patients with MD. And it’s not speculation – Sativex, the most common approved MS drug, was subject to a series of high-profile tests.
In 2011, the European Journal of Neurology featured a study on Sativex, which was developed by GW Pharmaceuticals, a British company. A total of 572 patients diagnosed with both MS and refractory spasticity took part in a double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled trial involving the drug. Sativex has an exact one-to-one ratio of CBD to THC. Sativex considerably bested the placebo treatment at tackling spasticity problems.
In 2012, the University of California conducted a study on cannabis and multiple sclerosis patients which was published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal. The researchers found that smoking marijuana could reduce MS-induced pain, as well as muscle stiffness and contractions.
The study used the Ashworth Scale to quantify the scale of the improvement that cannabis made to overall muscle mobility. Participants reported that the plant reduced muscle spasticity issues by one-third, while pain levels decreased by around 50 percent.
The extensive research into MS is reason enough for scientists to delve deeper into the potential of cannabis as a treatment for muscular dystrophy. It may be true that the muscle relaxant properties of marijuana are a useful tonic for the symptoms of MD.
3) Cannabis improves quality of life
Plenty of cannabis effects are considered to be subjective benefits by users – this includes the herb’s mood-lifting and stress-busting properties, and its propensity to send you into a fit of laughter. For those who struggle to get a quality night’s sleep due to aches and pains in their muscles and joints, the relaxing and sedative traits of cannabis are delightful.
Furthermore, research into the sleep cycles that cannabis induces has found that marijuana increases the time spent by the body in deep sleep, a regenerative phase.
In 2014, a review of surveys filled out by patients with chronic pain suggested that the analgesic effects of marijuana were very useful. On average, cannabis helped with anxiety management and for reducing insomnia. If symptoms relating to these three areas can be kept at bay, the patient can often enjoy a solid quality of life, despite their illness. Left unchecked, these symptoms can be a vicious cycle, with disrupted sleep causing muscle stiffness and fatigue, which leads to more pain, and so on.
Best strains for treating muscular dystrophy
Without several more studies into the effects of cannabis on MD in humans, we can only make educated guesses into which cannabis strains are of most use to patients. But many individuals with MD have engaged in self-medicating, sometimes with advice from their doctors. When picking a strain, the first thing to decide is whether you want psychoactive or non-psychoactive (high-CBD) cannabis.
THC, the primary psychoactive chemical in pot, is very therapeutic in its own rights, but the mind-altering properties of the herb are not suitable for everyone.
Ideal strains for muscular dystrophy may include Casey Jones, Ogre, Cannatonic (CBD-rich), Sour Tsunami and Canna-Tsu.
Before experimenting with cannabis as an MD medicine, consult your doctor who can advise on what to take and whether it’s wise to use cannabis with your current medication. The evidence we have indicates the herb is of benefit, but the extent of which it helps remains to be seen.
This article was written solely for educational purposes and is no substitute for medical advice.