One of the primary benefits of cannabis, touted by supporters like myself for a long time, is that cannabis relieves pain. This is such a no brainer—if you’re hurt, weed helps. But unfortunately over the past few decades, we have only had qualitative data supporting this hypothesis.
Thankfully, patients with cancer have had access to medical marijuana to suppress pain and induce hunger. But patients with other terrible diseases, such as Parkinson’s, have not had such an easy time gaining access.
Parkinson’s disease is a neurodegenerative disorder. In other words, as the disease progresses neurons in the brain are depleted, shrunken or destroyed. The disease is often characterized by lack of motor control, often seen in the hands and fingers. The reason for this is due to a loss of dopaminergic neurons in a structure of the brain called the substantia nigra (SN). Essentially, this means that there is a loss of neurons that produce/receive dopamine in the lower center of your brain, or the midbrain.
How is cannabis involved with the dopaminergic neurons, or the SN for that matter?
Well as some of you may know, THC indirectly activates the production of dopamine, a feel good molecule if you will, in the brain. There are two primary paths that produce dopamine denoted D1, and D2. D1 is a path that goes through the prefrontal cortex, the area most closely associated with our personalities and behaviors. This is the part of the brain that gives you the high. The other track is D2, which goes up the the center, through the SN. This path deals more with motor skills and is the afflicted area in Parkinson’s patients.
In the journal European Journal of Pain, medical scientists used a thermal quantitative sensing test (QST) to measure the pain tolerance of patients with Parkinson’s who had legal access to cannabis. The researchers also measured motor control using the unified Parkinson’s disease rating scale (UPDRS). What they found was that cannabis alleviates pain associated with cold sensations in the short term. It also alleviates pain associated with hot sensations in the long-term.
Not only was pain alleviated, but there was a partial gain in motor skills after cannabis use. However, there was no correlation between the pain and motor skills.
In the state of Washington, Parkinson’s disease is not a qualifying condition that allows for medical cannabis use. Yes, recreational marijuana is now legal in Washington (meaning patients aren’t prohibited from obtaining it), but adult-use pot comes at much higher price than what’s available at medical dispensaries. This is a consequence of differential taxing for recreational vs. medical weed. Perhaps research like this will make access to medical cannabis easier for patients with Parkinson’s and other related neurodegenerative disorders.
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