Cannabis and Epilepsy: A Medical Need for Many

Essential Use of Cannabis for Patients with Epilepsy

Most of the talk around cannabis these days is focused on adult-use legalization, which has been embraced in 18 states from Maine to Montana. This is obviously terrific development for cannabis and the landscape of cannabis in the United States is in a far better position than it was a decade ago. But amidst all the fervor for adult-use cannabis, it’s important to recognize the expanding medical market and the essential uses cannabis has for patients. Currently, 37 states have a cannabis medical market and one of the most common treatments cannabis has been offered to patients is for those with epilepsy. But what is epilepsy? How does cannabis inhibit seizures from occurring? And how is this impacting medical patients?  

Understanding Epilepsy

Often misunderstood, epilepsy is a neurological disorder which results in seizures that vary in type and control from person to person. There is no known cure. Despite its lack of discussion in the general discourse of healthcare, more people live with epilepsy than with autism spectrum disorders, Parkinson’s Disease, multiple sclerosis (MS), and cerebral palsy combined, or roughly 65 million people globally, 3.4 million in the United States alone. 

When someone has epilepsy, a seizure can be triggered by a variety of factors: alcohol, flashing lights and patterns, sleep deprivation, times of day, and more, including even some more conventional medications used to treat epilepsy. What cannabis and other medications can do is prevent the respective trigger from causing a seizure. As someone with epilepsy and having become all too familiar with the strange feeling of going about one’s day normally to then suddenly blink and find themselves in a dazed state in an ambulance or hospital room with fragments of memory, I relate and sympathize to the millions of others like me who require medicine to control their seizures.

The Science of Cannabis and Epilepsy

Epileptic seizures are caused when a single spot in the brain (usually in or around the hippocampus, which has a major role in short-term memory and spatial orientation) experiences an influx of nerve cells firing in synchrony. The hyperactivity then can cause convulsions and a loss of consciousness. Endocannabinoids, specifically 2-arachidonoylglycerol or 2-AG, can play a vital role in connecting with CB1 receptors along neurons within the brain. Found in cannabis, the 2-AG endocannabinoid can inhibit excessive neurological firing from occurring within the brain, thus reducing the risk of a seizure. 

Cannabis and its Impact

Roughly 30% of people with epilepsy have been unable to alleviate seizures through conventional methods or medications, and thus medicinal cannabis can serve as an alternative treatment. Uniquely, cannabis has not been linked as a trigger for seizures. We have seen incredible advantages for those with epilepsy who have found treatment through cannabis, particularly in children. The Food and Drug Administration has approved a cannabinol oral solution to treat two severe forms of epilepsy in patients two-years or younger. The benefits of medical cannabis have had tangible impacts on the lives of thousands of people already.  

Recently a 14-year-old patient has successfully gone two years without experiencing a seizure thanks to medical cannabis, having previously had to take up to 20 pills daily. The patient’s parents said, “Medical cannabis is the only remedy that has worked wonders for (him), and our family is grateful for this encouraging treatment option that allowed him to avoid surgery and harsh seizure medications.” 

The Future of Cannabis and Epilepsy

While states continue to expand medical programs and offer cannabis as a means of treatment for those with epilepsy, there are still a lot of unknowns and speculation about the future. Access for medical cannabis will continue to expand for patients, but what is most essential going forward is to decriminalize cannabis on a federal level to allow for further testing and research, encourage and fund research about epilepsy treatment, and continue to educate people about cannabis and epilepsy. 

More information about epilepsy, seizures, and cannabis can be found through the Epilepsy Foundation and the Neurology Center for Epilepsy and Seizures.  



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