Medical Marijuana | Definition & Patient Education
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Medical Marijuana

What is medical marijuana?

Highlights

  1. Marijuana has been used as a medicine for thousands of years.
  2. THC is the main active ingredient in marijuana. When THC enters the body it stimulates receptors in the brain and can reduce pain and increase appetite.
  3. Medical marijuana is mainly used to treat chronic pain, nausea, and muscle spasms, but it has many other uses.

Though marijuana, or cannabis, is commonly known as a recreational drug, it has been used as a medicine for thousands of years. Its recreational use is still illegal in all but a handful of U.S. states. Many states have legalized it for medical use, though the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) hasn’t approved it as a medicine.

The mind-altering ingredient in marijuana is THC, short for delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol. The amount of THC in marijuana varies and has been steadily increasing over the past few decades. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), the average THC content of confiscated samples was 3.7 percent in the 1990s. In 2013 it was 9.6 percent.

When THC enters the body it attaches to and stimulates cannabinoid receptors in the brain. The stimulation of these receptors affects the body in various ways. Among its effects are reduced pain and increased appetite.

Another chemical in marijuana that has beneficial health effects is cannabidiol (CBD). Unlike THC, this chemical isn’t psychoactive and doesn’t cause the intoxicating effects that THC does. According to NIDA, CBD can possibly be used to treat childhood epilepsy. It could also be turned into an oil for use as a healing salve. More research needs to be done into the effects of CBD.

In states where medical marijuana use is legal, a doctor must write a prescription for the drug.

What does medical marijuana treat?

Researchers continue to study the medical benefits of marijuana. It may be effective in treating:

  • chronic pain, due of its effect on the central nervous system
  • nausea
  • muscle spasms, especially those associated with certain conditions, such as multiple sclerosis

The California Medical Association (CMA) states that marijuana may also be used to help treat these conditions:

  • AIDS
  • anorexia
  • arthritis
  • cachexia
  • cancer
  • chronic pain
  • glaucoma
  • migraine
  • persistent muscle spasms, including multiple sclerosis
  • seizures, including those related to epilepsy
  • severe nausea
  • any other chronic or persistent medical symptom that limits your ability to conduct major activities in life or can cause serious harm to you if not relieved
Goals of treatment
Medical marijuana is used to relieve symptoms, not to treat or cure diseases. It can alleviate certain symptoms, make you feel better, and improve quality of life.

Medical marijuana is used to relieve symptoms. It isn’t used to treat or cure diseases. Using it won’t change the outcome of a certain disease. But it can ease certain symptoms, make you feel better, and improve your quality of life.

According to the CMA, cannabis is most effective in treating chronic neuropathic pain. This is pain from nerve injury or disease. Because marijuana can make you hungry, it is also useful in treating conditions or side effects of diseases that cause a loss of appetite, such as AIDS.

What are the risks of medical marijuana?

One possible risk of cannabis use is addiction. The debate over whether cannabis is physically or psychologically addictive is ongoing. NIDA cites research that suggests 30 percent of marijuana users may become addicted, and people who smoke marijuana before the age of 18 are 4 to 7 times more likely to develop a marijuana use disorder than adults.

If you do become dependent on marijuana, you may have withdrawal symptoms if you stop using the drug. Withdrawal symptoms may include:

  • irritability
  • insomnia
  • mood difficulties
  • decreased appetite
  • physical discomfort
  • nausea
  • restlessness

Smoking tobacco leads to both COPD and lung cancer. Researchers are split on whether smoking marijuana can lead to these diseases as well. Marijuana smoke does contain some of the same elements as tobacco smoke. This raises concern for its effects on the lungs.

What are the side effects of medical marijuana?

According to the National Cancer Institute (NCI), possible side effects of marijuana use include:

  • increased heart rate
  • low blood pressure
  • dizziness, light-headedness, or fainting
  • short-term reduced memory
  • short-term reduced attention span
  • decreased problem-solving skills

Cognitive side effects of marijuana use include impaired:

  • memory
  • sense of time
  • sensory perception
  • attention span
  • problem solving
  • speaking
  • reaction time
  • motor control

Other side effects of marijuana use are:

  • lowered blood sugar levels
  • drowsiness
  • increased bleeding
  • adverse interaction with other medications or herbs

People with mental or emotional disorders may have paranoia or hallucinations. It could also make their depression or mania worse.

How is medical marijuana administered?

Methods for taking cannabis include:

  • smoking it
  • baking it into food or putting it in other edible items
  • taking it orally in synthetic forms, such as dronabinol and nabilone

Your doctor will determine the specific dosage and frequency of medical marijuana use.

Outlook

Although the American Cancer Society believes that more research needs to be done into medical marijuana’s effectiveness for people with cancer, it’s still regularly prescribed to treat many conditions. Marijuana is not a cure in itself, but it can be used to relieve adverse symptoms of diseases or side effects of their treatments.

You need a prescription to use medical marijuana. Talk to your doctor if you feel it may help with your condition.

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