ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), also called Lou Gehrig’s Disease, is a neurodegenerative disorder that affects muscle strength and function. ALS is progressive, meaning that symptoms worsen over time. Although it impacts more than 16,000 patients in the United States alone, no one knows exactly what causes ALS; however, research indicates that both genetics and environmental factors play a role.
Prescription medications can help treat symptoms of ALS, but they have limitations and side effects. This has led patients and their caregivers to investigate ALS and marijuana. Is marijuana an effective treatment for ALS? Can it only help with symptoms, or can it slow the progression of the disease itself?
Since ALS is progressive, symptoms are sometimes initially overlooked or explained away as fatigue or other common issues. Early symptoms of ALS include:
- Muscle twitches.
- Muscle cramps.
- Muscle spasticity.
- Muscle weakness.
- Slurred or nasal speech.
- Difficulties with chewing or swallowing.
As ALS progresses, muscle weakness and atrophy spread. As time goes on, patients may have trouble walking. Many also have difficulties with appetite, and malnourishment is a significant concern for ALS patients and their families.
Two prescription medications, riluzole and edaravone, have been approved by the FDA to treat ALS. Riluzole prolongs survival by a few months but does not reverse any damage, and edaravone slows the progression of ALS. Edaravone (brand name Radicava) is administered as an intravenous infusion, however, some insurers do not cover this treatment for all patients.
ALS and Marijuana: What the Research Says
Marijuana’s classification as a Schedule I substance by the FDA has limited research into ALS and marijuana. However, some pre-clinical research shows promise for treating both the symptoms of ALS and the disease itself.
For example, a report that reviewed several studies appeared in Neural Regeneration Research in 2016. This report included a study that used mice with ALS-like symptoms to examine cannabis’s potential to both slow the progression of ALS and treat ALS symptoms.
In these studies, THC (one of the chemical compounds in marijuana) improved motor impairment and increased survival by five percent. A mixture of roughly equal parts THC and CBD (another chemical compound in marijuana) was found to be effective in delaying ALS progression in mice. This may be due to the compound’s activation of CB2 receptors, which are found in the peripheral nervous system and play a role in maintaining homeostasis throughout the body.
The report also examined studies that focused on treating ALS symptoms with cannabis. One such study found that ALS patients using cannabis experienced moderate relief from symptoms such as:
- Loss of appetite.
- Muscle spasticity.
Other studies reviewed in the report suggested that cannabis improved muscle spasticity and reduced muscle cramp intensity and frequency in ALS patients.
The report concludes with a call for further research, stating that “cannabinoids indeed are able to delay ALS progression and prolong survival.”
How to Get Started With Cannabis for ALS
For many patients with ALS, the first step to getting started with cannabis treatment is doing research. One resource to consider is The Sacred Plant’s YouTube channel, which is a collaborative effort with Dr. Daniel P. Stein of Neurology of Cannabis. This class covers the benefits of marijuana for several brain disorders, including ALS.
After doing research, the next step is to find an experienced medical marijuana physician. For example, Dr. Stein at Neurology of Cannabis has more than 25 years of practice experience and a background in neurology, which gives him unique insights into treating brain disorders with cannabis.
Once you make an appointment with a medical marijuana physician, gather your medical records and your medication list and take them to your appointment. Your doctor will review your medical history and current medications to make recommendations that make sense for your symptoms and your lifestyle.
From there, you will finish the process of joining the medical marijuana registry and then obtain your medicine.
Ready to learn more? Dr. Stein and his friendly staff are ready to answer your questions and guide you on the path to a better quality of life. Make an appointment today!