Marijuana For Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS)

by | Aug 5, 2021 | Conditions, Health & Relief

Updated on November 26, 2021. Medical content reviewed by Dr. Shatha Atiya.

Medical marijuana is a must-have in every patient’s arsenal battling ALS. Besides being potent when relieving the many burdensome symptoms of ALS like spasticity, chronic pain, and sleep disorders, recent studies suggest that cannabis for ALS may improve longevity.

Mitch Albom wrote on Tuesdays with Morrie, “ALS is like a lit candle: it melts your nerves and leaves your body a pile of wax.” Despite the grim depiction, this is the reality of ALS.

Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), Lou Gehrig’s disease, or motor neuron disease (MND) is a rare condition that attacks the central nervous system. Notably the nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord. As a result, ‘normal’ activities such as walking, chewing, talking, and breathing become strenuous. And due to the progressive nature of the disease, the situation worsens over time.

Unfortunately, there is no cure for ALS, and current treatment does little to alter the course of the disease.

Medical Marijuana Treatment For ALS

Since Lou Gehrig’s disease has no cure, why add medical marijuana to an already populated medication list?

As we shall see, recent scientific revelations suggest that medical marijuana may be more effective in treating ALS symptoms compared to existing medication. Moreover, these studies also imply that marijuana may slow ALS progression. That would mean perhaps extending the lifespan of ALS patients and reducing the burden of the disease.

Potential Benefits of Marijuana For ALS Treatment

Patients with motor neuron disease (MND) may find cannabis key when combating:

Spasticity

Besides jeopardizing a patient’s ability to control voluntary movement, ALS causes muscle tightness and involuntary contractions. That is known as spasticity, and it is a source of anguish for many patients. Although spasticity rears its ugly head for many debilitating conditions, it is particularly arduous to manage in ALS.

Current spasticity medications fall short in terms of efficacy and the intolerable side effects they cause. Worse still, these drugs intensify the lower motor neuron symptoms of ALS.

When dealing with spasticity, cannabis for multiple sclerosis (MS) has been an eyeopener. Many ALS patients have adopted medical marijuana for their spasticity because of how effective it is for MS.

A phase 2 trial done in Italy called CANALS sought to test whether Sativex (nabiximols), a cannabis extract, would be a safe, tolerable, and effective option for ALS patients affected by spasticity. The study involved 59 patients split into two groups, one receiving Sativex and the other a placebo.

At the end of the study, patients in the Sativex group had significantly reduced spasticity throughout the study. And the condition of those in the placebo group worsened. Additionally, the drug was well-tolerated, plus there were no adverse side effects.

Chronic pain

Patients with Lou Gehrig’s disease will experience long periods of pain due to spasticity. So, a solution to this chronic pain is vital during treatment.

Why should ALS patients consider marijuana for their pain? Marijuana has potent analgesic (pain-relieving) properties. Additionally, it has less damaging side effects compared to prescription pain medication.

Sleep disorders

Sleepless nights are inevitable when dealing with depression, anxiety, plus the physical symptoms of ALS like chronic pain and muscle cramps. In fact, insomnia and sleep disturbances are widespread among patients with ALS.

Fortunately, marijuana excels when it comes to inducing slumber. Indica strains, for instance, deliver a soothing body high that leaves a user relaxed, calm, and very sleepy.

Depression

Interestingly, depression is not as common as you might think among patients diagnosed with ALS. Most patients savor the time spent with their loved ones and find joy in the simple things in life they have control over.

Still, there are moments of weakness when anxiety and depression may creep in. Medical marijuana shines when it comes to the treatment of depression. Certain marijuana strains can slow racing thoughts and stimulate euphoria hence effectively dealing with depression. This quality of medical marijuana has also made it effective in PTSD treatment.

Loss of appetite

Appetite loss is a severe symptom of ALS that may lead to cachexia and muscle wasting. To avoid malnutrition, patients can get an appetite boost from cannabis because of its ability to induce the ‘munchies.’

Difficulty breathing

Short-term exposure to medical marijuana can lead to bronchodilation

Shortness of breath is generally a precursor for eventual respiratory failure among patients with Lou Gehrig’s disease. As the respiratory muscles weaken, breathing becomes troublesome.

Shortness of breath is generally a precursor for eventual respiratory failure among patients with Lou Gehrig’s disease. As the respiratory muscles weaken, breathing becomes troublesome.

A 2007 study revealed that short-term exposure to marijuana might lead to the expansion of bronchial air passages. As a result, the expanded airways let more air in when breathing. That would imply that patients with ALS could experience fewer periods of shortness of breath. Still, the same study warns that long-term exposure to cannabis could cause respiratory problems.

Excessive saliva

Excess saliva and drooling is another complication caused by ALS. The disease does not stimulate saliva production, however. Instead, patients can’t voluntarily swallow their saliva due to weakness of the swallowing muscles causing it to build up in the mouth.

Cottonmouth is usually a negative side effect of marijuana because of how dry the mouth gets. Yet, it is a boon for ALS patients that prevents drooling.

How can cannabis for ALS prolong life?

A lab mouse used to test the benefits of marijuana for ALS
The benefits of marijuana for ALS was first tested on ALS mouse models

The primary problem that accelerates the progression of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis is the continuous death of motor neurons.

Preclinical data suggests that marijuana has neuroprotective, anti-inflammatory, and antioxidative attributes. That means that cannabis may prevent rapid cell death, a key contributor to ALS progression, and in the process possibly extend life. Incidentally, these qualities also make marijuana suitable for Alzheimer’s treatment.

Evidence of marijuana’s neuroprotective, antioxidative and anti-inflammatory qualities for ALS emanate from tests performed on SOD1 (G93A) transgenic mouse models. SOD1 (G93A) transgenic mice are genetically engineered mice that exhibit ALS-like symptoms seen in humans.

The first study investigating the effects of cannabis on an ALS mouse model took place in 2004. At the end of the study, scientists discovered that cannabis slowed the disease process and extended the life of the mice.

Afterward, several studies have materialized to build upon this discovery. While the success of marijuana in ALS mouse models does not guarantee success in humans, it’s made a case for human trials.

Indica or Sativa for ALS?

Medical marijuana has two distinct plant groups; Indica and Sativa. Aside from contrasting appearances, both Indica and Sativa have different effects.

Indica strains enhance feelings of relaxation, dissipate pain, and induce sleep. These traits make Indica strains great candidates as remedies for anxiety, body pain, sleep disorders, and muscle spasms.

Sativa strains bring about a bump in energy, improved focus, added creativity, plus euphoria. Its medicinal benefits include treating depression, fatigue, pain, and improving appetite.

So, Indica or Sativa for ALS? Both.

Hybrid strains combine the benefits of both the Indica and Sativa strains making them the best for ALS.

Downsides of using medical marijuana for ALS

The first problem with medical marijuana is overabundance. First-time patients may find it a challenge picking the right strain or the best form of medical marijuana to treat their ALS.

Another problem is the psychoactive nature of medical cannabis. Elevated anxiety and paranoia are common side effects of marijuana that may frighten patients.

Even so, milder forms of cannabis and careful dosing can deal with this risk.

Speak to a medical marijuana doctor near you

An expert opinion from a physician experienced in treating debilitating conditions such as ALS with medical cannabis is crucial when considering it for therapy. Moreover, medical states reserve potent medical-grade cannabis for patients with a medical marijuana card.

If you are considering medical marijuana for yourself or your loved one, schedule an appointment with a thoughtful and seasoned medical marijuana doctor near you. Get more information on marijuana for ALS and obtain your med card in the process.

Conclusion

For symptomatic relief, medical marijuana is a viable option for ALS patients. Its ability to target and deal with multiple symptoms simultaneously without causing intolerable side effects gives it an edge over conventional medication.

Can marijuana for ALS alter the course of the disease? Results from clinical trials are scant and more evidence is necessary to validate this claim. But, investigations are underway. Perhaps soon, doctors will find an answer to the ALS cure conundrum.

In conclusion, regardless of the efficiency of marijuana as a treatment for ALS, the doctor’s advice always takes precedence. So, consult with your doctor and collate the potential benefits and risks of using medical marijuana.