Medical marijuana and the treatment of Lou Gehrig's Disease (ALS)
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While there is no cure for Lou Gehrig’s disease, a growing body of patients are turning to cannabis, claiming it not only helps tame their symptoms but has also helped slow the progression of the disease.
Lou Gehrig’s disease is a complex neurodegenerative disease that affects an estimated 30,000 people in the United States and many more around the world.
Lou Gehrig’s disease first gained attention in the late 1930s after professional baseball player Lou Gehrig was diagnosed with the disease and ultimately passed away 2 years later. Stephen Hawking is another notable figure suffering from the disease for over 50 years.
UNDERSTANDING LOU GEHRIG’S DISEASE
All voluntary muscle movement is controlled by the brain. More specifically, nerve cells in the brain (known as upper motor neurons) initiate movement by sending off chemical signals. These signals are passed down to other nerve cells in the spinal cord (known as lower motor neurons), from where they travel along special nerve fibers to a specific muscle, ultimately making it contract and move.
Lou Gehrig’s disease, also known as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) or motor neuron disease (MND) is a complex condition affecting these nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord.
It is a degenerative condition affecting both the upper and lower neurons. As these neurons begin to degenerate, patients lose the ability to move and control parts of their bodies as the chemical signals from the brain are no longer able to reach the muscles they intend to move.
There are 2 main types of Lou Gehrig’s disease:
- Sporadic: Sporadic ALS, as the name suggests, can affect anyone, anywhere. It is the most common form of the disease and accounts for up to 90-95% of all ALS cases in the US.
- Familial: Familial ALS is inherited and is responsible for causing roughly 5-10% of all cases in the US. Patients with Lou Gehrig’s disease have roughly 50% of passing it off to their children.
SYMPTOMS OF LOU GEHRIG’S DISEASE:
Lou Gehrig’s disease is characterized by the gradual loss of voluntary muscle movement. However, the disease can affect individual patients very differently.
The initial symptoms can be subtle and varied; some patients may notice difficulties grasping a cup or holding onto a pen, while others might notice sharp pitch variations in their voice when speaking.
Lou Gehrig’s generally has a gradual onset and the symptoms usually get more complicated as the disease progresses. One of the most common initial symptoms of Lou Gehrig’s disease is painless, progressive muscle weakness as well as a loss of coordination, which can often results in:
- Losing grip, and therefor dropping objects.
- Abnormal fatigue, especially in the limbs.
- Slurred speech.
- Muscle twitches and cramps.
- Uncontrollable fits of laughing and/or crying.
As the disease spreads and begins to affect motor neurons on a greater scale, patients will usually lose the ability to walk, speak, and even breath. Most patients also experience muscle wasting and shrinking as a result of not being able to move their muscles, as well as loss of appetite.
It is important to realize that not all patients experience the same symptoms or the same progression of Lou Gehrig’s disease. However, progressive muscle weakness and eventual paralysis are both universal and unavoidable symptoms of ALS.
As there is no cure for Lou Gehrig’s disease, most patients live between 2-3 years after diagnosis. However, some patients may go on to live more. Famous theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, for example, has lived with the disease for over 50 years.
As with any chronic or terminal condition, it is important to note that Lou Gehrig’s patients are at a higher risk of developing mental health issues as a result of dealing/coping with the disease.
In fact, a 2011 study analysing 127 ALS patients found that 20% of participants were using antidepressants to specifically treat depression.
TREATING LOU GEHRIG’S DISEASE
As there is no cure for Lou Gehrig’s disease, treatment is usually concerned with managing symptoms and increasing a patient’s quality of life.
Patients may turn to breathing support (like intermittent positive pressure ventilation) to help artificially inflate their lungs once they lose control over the muscles involved in breathing.
Many patients will also work with physical, speech, and occupational therapists in an attempt to delay the onset of the disease. Most therapies aim to delay the loss of strength, help maintain endurance, limit pain, and ultimately promote functional independence.
Towards the final stages of the disease, patients will ultimately receive special end-of-life care designed to help them cope with the medical and emotional challenges of enduring the final stages of the disease. Some patients may also take Riluzole, a medication that has been shown to increase survival by about 2 to 3 months.
CANNABIS AND LOU GEHRIG’S DISEASE
Over the last couple of years, research into the medicinal properties of cannabis has increased tremendously. Thanks to this research, we now know that cannabis has a wide variety of medically viable properties that can alleviate a wide variety of symptoms.
For example, cannabis is known to help relieve pain, nausea, vomiting, and sleep issues. More recently, researchers have also found that certain cannabinoids have neuroprotective properties. These properties make cannabis a promising new alternative for managing symptoms of a wide variety of conditions, including Lou Gehrig’s disease.
In 2001, a paper published in the American Journal of Hospice and Palliative Medicine outlined the various effects of cannabis and how they may help alleviate certain ALS symptoms, including pain, spasticity, wasting, depression, and more.
Another article, published in the same journal in 2010, made similar comparisons, acknowledging that cannabis’ powerful antioxidative, anti-inflammatory, and neuroprotective effects may promote neuronal cell survival, delayed onset, and an overall slower progression of ALS. The paper made it clear that clinical trials were the logical next step to better understanding the potential of cannabis in treating Lou Gehrig’s disease.
Both of these papers are hypothetical and make it clear that more concrete clinical studies are needed before we can make concrete conclusions about how the cannabinoids found in cannabis may help manage the symptoms of this disease.
However, it is important to note that there is a growing body of anecdotal evidence from ALS patients who use the drug for some kind of relief.
In 2004, for example, a survey of 131 ASL patients found close to 10% used cannabis for relief from symptoms like appetite loss, depression, pain, spasticity, and drooling. Despite this, a number of patients have made their stories public in an attempt to legitimize cannabis as a form of treating Lou Gehrig’s.
THE FUTURE OF CANNABIS AND LOU GEHRIG’S DISEASE
It is important to note that while the evidence listed above is compelling, it isn’t enough to warrant concrete conclusions about cannabis and how it may help in the treatment/management of Lou Gehrig’s. However, it does warrant further research into the topic, which will hopefully take place in the near future.
Lou Gehrig’s disease is a qualifying condition for a variety of medicinal cannabis programs in the US, including those in Arkansas, Delaware, Florida, Washington D.C., Georgia, Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York and a few more.
Medical marijuana is also legal in Chile, Argentina, Australia, and many other countries in the world. To find out whether Lou Gehrig’s disease qualifies for treatment with medical marijuana in your area, consult your local health authority.
Note: We have taken the utmost care and precaution whilst writing this article. That being said, please take note of the fact that we are not medical professionals of any kind. Cannabis.info is strictly a news and information website. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.