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Did you know as many as 450,000 people in the United States alone are living with a spinal cord injury? Each year, there are 12,000 new cases. Often resulting from motor vehicle accidents, violence, or falls – spinal cord injuries are one of the most traumatic injuries someone can experience. A blow to the spinal cord causes lifelong, and in many cases, permanent damage.
However, research indicates cannabis is a powerful treatment option. Cannabis is capable of alleviating everything from muscle spasms to pain while also acting as a neuroprotectant.
What is a spinal cord injury?
Suffering a spinal cord injury (SCI) can have devastating effects on quality of life. The spinal cord is a vital messenger between the body and brain. Comprised of a bundle of nerves, the spinal cord is responsible for carrying signals back and forth between the brain and body.
When trauma occurs, these signals in the spinal cord are disrupted. As a result, there is a significant loss of functioning. The degree of functioning, which is lost, depends on whether an injury is complete or incomplete.
A complete spinal cord injury occurs when the spinal cord cannot send signals beyond the site of injury. This is the most devastating type of spinal cord injury because there is a total loss of functioning and sensation below the injury. An incomplete spinal cord injury, on the other hand, results in partial functioning and sensation beyond the point of trauma.
Side effects of a spinal injury include insomnia, severe pain, muscle spasticity, and anxiety, along with uncontrollable bowel and bladder.
How cannabis can help
Research since the 1970s has indicated the positive effects of using cannabis for spinal cord injuries. Today we know that cannabis is a powerful treatment option. The cannabinoids in cannabis are capable of treating a variety of symptoms associated with spinal cord injuries. While we’re still studying the complexities of this relationship, research has revealed a number of noteworthy benefits.
Here are a few of the incredible ways cannabis provides relief for spinal cord injuries.
Cannabis eases muscle spasticity
Muscle spasticity occurs when a muscle uncontrollably tightens or contracts. Spasticity can negatively impact a person’s speech or movement. It is estimated that between 65-78% of individuals living with a spinal cord injury experience muscle spasticity.
A study from the Department of Medicine at the University of Manitoba, Canada studied the effects of Nabilone (a synthetic cannabinoid) on twelve patients with spinal cord injuries. By the end of the study, eleven out of the twelve participants showed a significant decrease in muscle spasticity.
Although it should be taken into consideration these results are based upon on a synthetic cannabinoid, the implications are no less significant.
A study in 2007 from the Switzerland Centre for Spinal Cord Injuries examined the effects of THC and muscle spasticity. During the course of the study, twenty-five patients with SCI were orally administered THC. After ingesting the THC, patients experienced reduced spasticity.
In fact, the researchers from the study concluded that THC is a safe and effective treatment for decreasing muscle spasticity.
Cannabis provides pain relief
Living with a spinal cord injury not only results in a major loss of functioning, it also can lead to lifelong chronic pain. Four out of five patients with a spinal cord injury experience ongoing pain.
Opioid pain medications are often the first line of defense but they can lead to debilitating side effects. In fact, experimental evidence suggests opioids in the treatment of spinal cord injuries are linked to impaired recovery of functioning as well the development of pain. For patients with SCI, these side effects can significantly diminish their quality of life.
Cannabis, on the other hand, is capable of providing pain relief without harsh side effects. A manuscript in the Journal of Pain studied the effects of cannabis for treating neuropathic pain associated with spinal cord injuries. Forty-two patients with SCI were given either vaporized cannabis (2.9% or 6.7% THC) or a placebo. Throughout the study, participants were given four initial puffs. After three hours, patients were given the option to take between 4-8 more puffs. This was repeated on three separate occasions.
By the end, the researchers found that cannabis significantly improved pain relief. In addition, the findings also revealed that the lowest dosage of THC (2.9%) appeared to offer patients the best risk-benefit ratio for alleviating neuropathic pain.
Cannabis moderates bladder activity
The spinal cord plays a crucial role in bladder control.
This is because the spinal cord is a messenger between the brain and bladder. When the bladder is full, the brain sends messages to the spinal cord to squeeze the bladder wall and relax the sphincter muscle (a muscle surrounding the opening of the urethra). Once this signal is sent, urine passes through the urethra and exits the body.
With a SCI, the brain can no longer send these signals through the spinal cord, which is why almost any level of paralysis affects bladder control. For most patients with SCI, this means dealing with an overactive bladder.
In 2001, the Switzerland Centre for Spinal Cord Injury conducted a study on SCI patients with an overactive bladder using cannabis. Throughout the study, patients were administered THC orally or rectally over the course of six weeks. By the end of the study, patients that were given the oral dose of THC marked little improvement in bladder control. However, patients that were administered THC rectally demonstrated a significant decrease in bladder activity.
While more research is necessary to understand these effects fully, the results from this study alone are astounding.
Cannabis produces a neuroprotective response
The positive impact of cannabis in treating the debilitating side effects of a spinal cord injury is evident. However, research shows cannabis isn’t only capable of treating the side effects of spinal cord injuries. In fact, cannabis may be capable of preventing further damage shortly after the trauma takes place.
A study in 2012 revealed cannabis acts as a neuroprotectant. In the study, researchers examined the effects of cannabis twenty minutes after an injury took place. By the end of the study, the researchers concluded:
“Endocannabinoids acting through CB1 and CB2 receptors are part of an early neuroprotective response triggered after SCI that is involved in the spontaneous recovery after an incomplete lesion.”
It should be noted that the subjects in this study were not humans but rats. However, the potential for a positive impact is clear. If patients with a spinal cord injury were able to regain even some level of functioning, the results would be life changing. In some cases, it could mean life or death.
It is evident that cannabis can treat many of the symptoms associated with SCI. While more research is necessary, the side effects of cannabis pale in comparison to legal pharmaceuticals on the market today.
Share this article if you believe patients with spinal cord injuries should have access to safe and quality cannabis medicine.