Cerebral Palsy and Cannabis: What We Know About Medical Cannabis and Spasticity

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A growing body of research shows cannabis can be effective in relieving symptoms of serious medical conditions, including some associated with cerebral palsy. But what does the science actually tell us about cerebral palsy and cannabis?

First, let’s define our terms.

What is Cerebral Palsy?

Cerebral palsy is an umbrella term used to describe a number of central nervous system motor disorders that are characterized by impairment of voluntary muscle movement. The disorder affects a person’s movements and muscle coordination. Estimates show 500,000 children and adults in the United States have cerebral palsy.

People who have cerebral palsy may also have visual, learning, hearing, speech, epilepsy and intellectual impairments. The condition affects people in different ways, but can impact body movement, muscle control, muscle coordination, muscle tone, reflex, posture and balance. One of the most common problems cerebral palsy patients face is spasticity.

What is Spasticity?

Spasticity is a condition in which certain muscles are continuously contracted. This contraction causes stiffness or tightness in the muscles and uncontrollable spasms. It can result in severe pain and interference with normal movement, speech and gait. Cerebral palsy is the most common cause of spasticity, but other conditions include multiple sclerosis (MS), traumatic brain injury (TBI), spinal cord injury, stroke and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).

About 80 percent of people with cerebral palsy (CP) have varying degrees of spasticity, according to the American Association of Neurological Surgeons. Roughly half a million people in the United States have some form of CP, which means approximately 400,000 Americans suffer from some degree of CP-related spasticity.

Research Findings on Medical Cannabis and Spasticity

The federal government’s classification of cannabis as a Schedule I controlled substance has hampered scientific study in the United States for decades, but a landmark report from The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine said there’s definitive scientific evidence cannabis provides therapeutic relief in reducing spasticity symptoms in patients with multiple sclerosis (MS)—and two recent studies on medical cannabis and cerebral palsy conducted in Israel, a global leader in medical cannabis research, hold promise.

A study published in the May 2018 edition of the Journal of Child Neurology focused on children with complex movement disorders, including cerebral palsy and epilepsy. Researchers administered various low-THC, high-CBD cannabis products to 25 patients for five months, noting that “significant improvement in spasticity and dystonia, sleep difficulties, pain severity and QOL (quality of life) in the total study cohort.”

In 2017, researchers at Israel’s Wolfson Medical Center presented interim findings from a three-year study of 40 children with cerebral palsy, according to a report by Israeli newspaper Haaretz. “We used several evaluation indexes for the treatment’s effectiveness, such as the effect on the spasticity (muscle contraction), dystonia (involuntary movement) and motor changes,” Luba Blumkin, a child neurologist who led the study, told Haaretz.

The beneficial effects of cannabis were significant enough that the majority of test patients have continued treatment with medical cannabis.

Research also shows cannabis can aid patients with spasticity related to other health conditions. As far back as 1982, a survey of people with spinal cord injuries showed 21 of 43 respondents reported cannabis reduced their muscle spasticity.

There are also powerful anecdotal examples of cerebral palsy patients who found relief through medical cannabis. Jack Splitt, a Colorado teenager who died in 2016 from complications of cerebral palsy, not only used cannabis to treat his excruciating pain and dystonia, but served as a powerful medical marijuana advocate. His family’s lobbying efforts helped pass bills that allow students in Colorado to use medical cannabis while at school. Comedian Josh Blue gained national notoriety when he won NBC’s Last Comic Standing reality show in 2006, and was the first comic invited to do stand-up on The Ellen DeGeneres Show. He credits medical cannabis with allowing him to maintain a grueling schedule of more than 200 stand-up dates a year.

Clinical studies will soon provide further insight into the efficacy of cannabis in treating CP-related spasticity, and the ample scientific evidence that cannabis aids patients with spasticity resulting from other conditions like MS and ALS should incentivize such research.

Photo credit: Chris Reichman, Sum & Substance Photography
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