Medical Cannabis and Epilepsy
Epilepsy is a disease of the central nervous system. In epilepsy, abnormal brain activity triggers seizures. Epilepsy can also cause unusual behavior, feeling unaware, or unexplained sensations.1
For some people, epilepsy can be treated with one medicine. But other people with more serious cases may require surgery. Even for less serious cases, some people struggle to find a drug that treats their symptoms. Other people may not be interested in taking a drug every day for the rest of their lives. These situations can spark interest in alternative treatments such as medical cannabis (cannabidiol or CBD).1,2
What is medical cannabis?
Medical cannabis is sometimes called medical marijuana. When the cannabis plant or chemicals from it are used for a medical purpose, we call it medical cannabis. Cannabis may be helpful in treating certain health conditions. Research indicates it could help with issues such as:3
- Nausea and vomiting
- Loss of weight and appetite due to HIV/AIDS
- Chronic pain
- Multiple sclerosis
In the United States, medical cannabis and CBD are still not federally approved. At the same time, different states have different rules. So your ability to access medical cannabis depends on where you live.4
What is CBD?
Cannabinoids are the substances in cannabis that interact with our body. There are 2 main types: tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and CBD. THC is the cannabinoid linked to the psychoactive effect of feeling "high." CBD does not cause the same psychoactive effects but can still have an impact on the body.2,3
Most studies on epilepsy have looked at treatment with CBD. Also, because CBD has less psychoactive impact than THC, it usually has different restrictions. In many places, CBD is more easily available.4
Research on medical marijuana and epilepsy
In the United States, marijuana is still a federally controlled substance. This means researchers need to get special permits to study it. This barrier has reduced the amount of research on the medical use of cannabis. But some researchers think cannabis can help treat epilepsy and be an alternative for drug-resistant epilepsy. That is epilepsy that cannot be managed with typical medicines.4,5
The limited research that exists suggests CBD can help people with epilepsy have fewer seizures. Studies have shown that about 40 to 50 percent of the participants who took CBD had a reduction in seizures. Self-reported data also supports this claim. In surveys of people with epilepsy who use cannabis, about 80 percent feel that it helps them.5,6
Treating epilepsy with cannabis/CBD
In 2018, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the first CBD-based drug. It is called Epidiolex® (cannabidiol). The FDA approved Epidiolex to treat seizures caused by certain epileptic conditions in people over 1 year old.7
If available in your state, over-the-counter CBD products can be found almost anywhere. But the quality of these products can vary significantly. Many products claim to contain CBD, but they do not all have high-quality ingredients. Or they might not contain enough CBD to affect your symptoms.7
CBD can still cause side effects. The most common are tiredness, diarrhea, and vomiting. Talk to your doctor if you are interested in trying CBD for your epilepsy. Your doctor may be able to recommend safe treatment options, or even prescribe Epidiolex.2,7
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