There are anecdotal cases of patients with cerebral palsy reporting improvement of their condition after using cannabis, but the scientific research on whether cannabis is an effective treatment for cerebral palsy is still very limited. Still, there is some evidence suggesting a correlation between the endocannabinoid system (ECS) and cerebral palsy or its causes (such cerebral ischemia and brain lesions). In addition, there is some limited research suggesting that both THC and CBD could help those with cerebral palsy find relief from symptoms such as pain, spasticity, sleep difficulty and speech disorder. So, while much more research needs to be done, cannabis does show potential as a treatment for cerebral palsy.
How Cannabis Works on Cerebral Palsy
The endocannabinoid system exists in all vertebrates and helps regulate crucial functions such as sleep, pain, and appetite. The human body produces its own cannabinoids, which modulate and activate its various functions, but as its name suggests, the endocannabinoid system can also be modulated and activated by cannabinoids found in the cannabis plant. Because the entire system was only discovered in the past 30 years, scientists still have much to learn about the myriad ways cannabis affects the human body.
There is also evidence that the ECS may play a role in the development of cerebral palsy. For one thing, endocannabinoids have been found to have neuroprotective effects in some animal models of cerebral palsy.
In one mouse model, for example, the endocannabinoid anandamide was able to protect the brain against developing white matter and lessen the brain lesions associated with neonatal development of cerebral palsy. This effect seems to be mediated primarily by the CB1 receptor — a key receptor in the ECS which can be activated by both endocannabinoids like anandamide, and cannabinoids from cannabis like THC.
Other research shows that altered endocannabinoid system signaling is also involved in cerebral ischemia, a type of stroke that occurs when there is inadequate blood flow to the brain. When this happens to a baby during pregnancy, it can lead to cerebral palsy. Research studying this phenomenon has found that ECS activity can both exacerbate and reduce injury from cerebral ischemia, creating a complex picture.
For example, some evidence suggests that activation of CB1 is beneficial during ischemia, reducing brain swelling and damage to neurons, as well as inducing hypothermia — which can be protective during ischemia. But other research suggests that CB1 activation can cause problems and reducing it’s activity has protective effects. CB2, another receptor in the endocannabinoid system, has also been found to have protective effects, so scientists reviewing the data suggest that activating CB2 while reducing activity of CB1 may be the best route for reducing damage in ischemia. Still, more research is needed to better understand how these receptors interact with the condition.
Research on Cerebral Palsy and Cannabis
When it comes to treating cerebral palsy with cannabis, the research is still fairly limited. Despite the many anecdotal reports of cannabis helping patients with cerebral palsy, there is very little looking at cerebral palsy specifically. Still, there are studies looking at specific symptoms that are common in cerebral palsy, such as pain and spasticity, which show that cannabis may be able to help those with cerebral palsy improve their quality of life.
One study that looked specifically at cerebral palsy patients was a survey-based study investigating a spectrum of treatments for pain relief. This study included 83 adults with cerebral palsy and looked at 24 potential pain treatments — including cannabis. While less than 5% of those studied had tried cannabis, it was the highest rated treatment in the study — offering more relief than traditional painkillers like opioids, benzodiazepines, aspirin, and acetaminophen, and beating out drug-free care options like ice or heat, physical therapy, hypnosis, acupuncture, massage and counseling. This is highly encouraging and points to the need for more studies on the role of cannabis in helping pain in CP.
Cannabis may also help with cerebral palsy-related spasticity. In fact, there is even a history of using cannabis for spasms that goes back into the 19th century. There is also a fair bit of data supporting the use of cannabis for spasticity in multiple sclerosis.
One study on patients with spasticity from conditions including cerebral palsy found that THC from cannabis reduced spasticity in 78% of those in the study. To add to this, all three patients in the study with tonic spasms (a type of spasm common for adults with cerebral palsy) saw beneficial results from using THC.
Another study looked at cannabis for the treatment of motor disorders. The researchers studied cannabis’ effects on 25 children between the ages of one and 17 — all with motor disorders including cerebral palsy. Children taking a THC formulation for five months saw significant improvement in not only spasticity, but also sleep difficulties, pain severity, and quality of life.
In addition, some with cerebral palsy report that cannabis can help with speech disorders, a common symptom for the condition. While there is no research on this topic, there are stories like that of Jacqueline Patterson, a woman with cerebral palsy who has suffered with severe stuttering since childhood. She reports in her 2007 documentary In Pot We Trust that cannabis significantly reduced her stuttering (along with her muscle pain and stiffness). Stories like Jacqueline’s show how important it is to continue research into cannabis’ benefits so we can understand how and why cannabis might be helping with this aspect of cerebral palsy.
CBD and Cerebral Palsy
While most studies on cannabis and cerebral palsy relate to THC (cannabis’ most common chemical ingredient and the one known for providing a euphoric and sometimes hallucinogenic high), one study has also investigated CBD (a medicinal compound in cannabis that does not cause this type of high).
The study looking at cannabis for the treatment of motor disorders in children, mentioned above, researched not only THC, but also CBD in their experiments. Like with THC, children taking a CBD formulation for five months also saw significant improvement in not only spasticity, but also sleep difficulties, pain severity, and quality of life. In this study, THC and CBD performed equally well in helping children with their cerebral palsy symptoms and quality of life.
Potential side effects of cannabis use
The side effects of cannabis are generally mild and can include symptoms like mild difficulties in concentration and memory, impaired coordination, light-headedness, racing heart, increased appetite, dry mouth, nausea, and fatigue.
When it comes to cerebral palsy, one important potential side effect that occurred in the literature was worsening of seizures. While this was rare, it did occur during the research and may impact some patients. Other side effects noted in this group were behavioral changes and drowsiness.
In addition, cannabis may interact negatively with some drugs — slowing their metabolism and thus increasing the amount present in the bloodstream. Those taking other medications should consult with a doctor before beginning cannabis use.
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