An uncommon but serious ailment brought on by chronic marijuana use is showing up more frequently in states where the drug has been legalized.
Doctors are trying to get the word out.
Cannabinoid hyperemesis syndrome (CHS) falls under the umbrella of a condition known as cyclical vomiting.
It’s described as recurrent, severe bouts of vomiting and nausea.
“It’s the worse stomach flu you’ve ever had,” Dr. Kennon Heard, a professor of emergency medicine at Colorado State University, told Healthline.
The pain can be severe.
“You think you are dying. You pray for death at some points because it hurts so bad. It’s just so unbearable,” Chalfonte Queen, who has CHS, recently told San Diego station NBC 7.
Some emergency room doctors have coined the term “scromiting,” a combination of screaming and vomiting, to describe CHS patients presenting at hospitals.
Diagnosing CHS can be difficult.
The distinction of CHS from other forms of cyclical vomiting only occurred in 2004 in Australia, where it was documented for the first time.
“It’s not like cancer, where we can do a biopsy,” said Heard. “This is really based on symptoms of recurrent vomiting and abdominal pain, no other explanation in a patient who is a frequent marijuana user.”
Illness becoming more common
What’s clear to Heard, and to other doctors, is that CHS is appearing more frequently.
A doctor in San Diego at Scripps Mercy Hospital recently told news sources that they were seeing at least one patient a day for CHS.
But, as it appears to become more common, many are asking if this is a direct result of marijuana legalization.
That’s something Heard has investigated in his own research.
“We suspect the reason we were seeing this much less often 15 to 20 years ago was that it was a lot harder to get marijuana, and the marijuana that was available had a lower THC concentration or content,” he explained.
But the increased visibility of CHS among doctors may not mean that the ailment affects more people.
Legalization, explains Heard, has had a dual effect on both patients and doctors.
Patients have become more willing to discuss their marijuana usage with caregivers. That, in a roundabout way, has made CHS easier to diagnose.
Paul Armentano, the deputy director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, also supports this theory.
“Increased anecdotal reports of this phenomenon are likely a result of greater awareness that such a phenomenon exists, but should not be conflated with the presumption that incidences of the phenomenon itself are necessarily becoming more common,” Armentano told Healthline.
Treatment is to stop using drug
Heard hopes that the increased visibility and awareness of the condition will lead to more individuals seeking treatment for it.
There’s a simple, effective treatment for CHS: Stop using marijuana.
Heard notes it still isn’t clear if marijuana usage must be ceased entirely, or if use can be moderated in order for the condition to go away.
For more casual, long-term users, that may be no big deal. But medical marijuana patients may find themselves in a double bind.
There’s still plenty of work to be done on CHS.
Although it’s become more visible, doctors still don’t have a solid grasp of why the ailment occurs.
Some have hypothesized that chronic, long-term use of marijuana affects the body’s cannabinoid receptors, which regulate the nervous system.
“The reality is that there are lots of opinions,” said Heard.
Until more is known about the disease, Heard simply wants people to be aware that it exists — and if you’re experiencing symptoms, that marijuana may be the cause.
Both he and other doctors have reported skepticism from patients on the diagnoses, with some individuals refusing to believe that marijuana has anything to do with their illness.
Both Heard and Armentano agree that CHS isn’t a major public health concern.
“This is not huge. It’s not tobacco smoke. It’s not drunk driving. But, if you’re the person affected by it, it’s huge,” said Heard.
“The message that we want out there is if you are having these symptoms, it may be related to your marijuana use and you should talk to your doctor. If it’s really disrupting your life, you need to consider that,” he added.