It is estimated that approximately 3.4 million Americans live with epilepsy. Epilepsy describes a group of neurological disorders — uncontrollable seizures being its most recognized characteristic. These episodes result from excessive and abnormal activity in specific brain areas.
Epilepsy is a brain condition that causes recurring seizures that can be broken down and classified into different types.
More research is needed on medical marijuana to determine its effectiveness in treating epilepsy.
Researchers have conducted many studies on CBDs, and the results have shown that they help reduce the number of seizures in someone with epilepsy.
Unfortunately, 30% of people with epilepsy cannot control their seizures with conventional treatments. This article discusses marijuana's effectiveness in helping to control epileptic seizures.
What is epilepsy?
Epilepsy is the fourth most common neurological disorder in the world. It is a brain disorder characterized by unusual and extreme amounts of brain activity that causes recurring and unprovoked seizures.
For years, marijuana has been used to treat various medical conditions. Researchers are realizing that epilepsy is one condition that may respond well to a treatment of medical marijuana.
Seizures are classified by the onset, motor movement, and awareness levels:
- Focal onset seizures refer to the electrical activity starting in one brain area.
- Generalized onset seizures refer to the electrical activity starting simultaneously on both sides of the brain.
- Unknown onset seizures refer to not knowing where the seizure begins in the brain.
Epilepsy symptoms and classifications
Seizures can be classified more specifically as being aware or having impaired awareness. A seizure can even be further grouped as a motor or non-motor seizure.
Non-motor symptoms are sometimes referred to as absence seizures, where this is an absence of movement or only brief twitching.
Motor symptoms can include:
- Jerking (clonus).
- Muscle weakness (atonic).
- Rigid muscles (tonic).
- Twitching (myoclonus).
Any recurring seizure can be considered epilepsy syndrome. Though what causes epilepsy is unknown, scientists believe that some causes are linked to a genetic disorder that occurs in infancy or during childhood.
Classifying epilepsy syndromes
Infantile-onset epilepsy syndromes start during infancy and can cause developmental delays. The type is defined by the types of seizure and its onset. Some types of infantile-onset epilepsy include Dravet syndrome, Ohtahara syndrome, and benign familial neonatal seizures.
Childhood-onset epilepsy syndromes start after infancy in early childhood — commonly before the age of four. These types of seizures include Lennox-Gastaut syndrome, Rasmussen syndrome, and childhood absence epilepsy.
What is medical marijuana?
When people talk about marijuana, they usually refer to the female flower portion that is ground up and smoked. Medical marijuana, sometimes known as medical cannabis, is the use of the whole marijuana plant or the effective chemicals it produces, such as THC.
Sometimes people refer to the plant as a hemp plant. Hemp is a variety of Cannabis sativa that can be used for its stalk and seeds to make fabric fibers. The plant also has high levels of CBD but lower levels of THC.
Medical marijuana requires an exam and prescription from a licensed physician. It must also be bought from a medical marijuana dispensary unless the person has a special license to grow their own.
Medical marijuana can be bought in many forms:
- Flower for smoking.
- Pill or capsules.
- Liquid drops.
- Oil drops.
- Edibles (gummies, candies, brownies, etc.).
- Resin for vaping.
There is no right or wrong way to determine what form works best. Consult your physician for questions or concerns about choosing which is most suitable for you.
Can marijuana help control seizures?
Marijuana use to treat seizures has been widely studied and debated for years. Research has shown that cannabidiol (CBD), a chemical component of marijuana, may help control seizures in patients with epilepsy.
People who have epilepsy may use and be prescribed medical marijuana to help prevent seizure activity where available. However, there currently is little peer-reviewed data to prove the effectiveness of marijuana for controlling seizures.
Federal limitations and restraints have made it hard for people to research marijuana effectively for medical purposes. While more research is needed to confirm findings, the potential benefits of using marijuana for seizure disorders cannot be ignored. Thus far, the only widely studied marijuana-based drug for medical therapy is Epidiolex.
The difference between CBD and THC
Both cannabinoid substances — CBD and THC — act on cannabinoid receptors in the body. Cannabidiol does not have a psychoactive component but still causes positive effects on the body. On the other hand, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is the psychoactive chemical in marijuana that causes the “high.”
Unlike THC, which produces euphoria, CBD’s effects are more subtle and therapeutic. Cannabidiol products are growing in popularity but may not always have the same quality and are not well-regulated. Consult your physician before taking any medication or supplement.
What are the side effects of using marijuana?
Though many users boast of its benefits, medical marijuana still needs further testing to learn of possible long-term side effects. However, researchers already know of numerous side effects depending on how it is administered.
For example, marijuana smoke can be harmful to inhale — just like other types of smoke. Medical professionals have known for years that inhaling smoke damages the lungs. Furthermore, marijuana is processed and broken down by the liver and, therefore, can cause liver damage.
Additionally, marijuana use can also cause sleepiness, upset stomach, and diarrhea. However, high doses are also known to cause anxiety, increase heart rate, slow reaction times, and induce forgetfulness.
Marijuana interacts with some prescription medications. For people with epilepsy disorders taking valproic acid, this can be problematic. This is because when the body breaks down a byproduct of valproic acid, it interacts with CBD causing further liver issues.
Approved marijuana-based medications
The United States Food & Drug Administration (FDA) approved a new medication in 2018 called Epidiolex. It's a 98% cannabidiol and CBD oral solution. The medicine has been approved to treat two epilepsy syndromes, Lennox-Gastaut syndrome and Dravet syndrome. This is the first approved medication to treat Dravet syndrome.
Epidiolex is a plant-based CBD formula purified from the cannabis plant. In the studies on this new medication, people with certain types of epilepsy experienced a 75% reduction in seizure activity. Like all medications, Epidiolex has side effects to be aware of, including the following:
- Changes in liver function.
- Decreased appetite.
Marijuana laws in the United States
In 2018, hemp and hemp-derived products such as CBD were removed from the Controlled Substance Act, making them legal for manufacturing. Up to that point, they were considered a Schedule I drug, meaning they were not allowed for medical or recreational use — they were considered addictive. However, California was the first state to legalize medical marijuana in 1996 — even though it contradicted Federal laws. Some years later, in 2012, Colorado and Washington State made history by being the first to legalize recreational cannabis use.
However, as of yet, hemp and CBD products are not well regulated. This is an issue because products can contain varying amounts of CBD.
Currently, 39 states allow the use of medical marijuana:
There are only five states that allow the medical use of CBD only:
If your state does not allow the use of medical marijuana or the use of CBD, your doctor may be able to help find you new forms of treatment or determine if you are eligible for clinical trials.