An inability to speak, to eat, to move or even breathe, that’s what an ALS patient has to go through on a daily basis. Safe to say, patients suffering from Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), aka, Lou Gehrig’s disease have to face too many hardships, some even turning fatal. 

If you ever find yourself thinking, you’ve never heard or seen one go through this illness, think again. Not just anyone, but Stephen Hawking was one of the many patients of the disease. Stephen Hillenburg, the creator of ‘SpongeBob SquarePants’ is another personality you might’ve heard of who was diagnosed with the ailment. 

Unfortunately, for such a neurological disorder, we have no cure. What we do have is a combination of medications and therapies that may slow down the onset of the disease or bring its associated symptoms under control. 

This is precisely why we’re interested in trying our hands at cannabis. The herb has proven its efficacy in alleviating symptoms of multiple disorders, to the point that its potential is even recognized by national and international bodies. This realization by the FDA even led to the legalization of hemp based cannabis products across the U.S., both for medical and recreational purposes. The legalization has also helped people easily seek cannabis treatment with just a medical marijuana card online and a qualifying medical condition. . 

With a terminal disease like ALS, patients and practitioners are more likely to experiment with different medical substitutes. The purpose remains the same, finding products that can help patients live longer with improved quality of life. 

Before getting into the depths of what we know about cannabis’s effect on ALS and how it can help, let’s get the basics of ALS down. 

 

What is ALS? 

Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) is a terminal illness leading to the progressive degeneration of nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord. 

Patients suffering from the disease tend to lose control over their muscles as nerves  continue degenerating, to the point of complete immobility.

The conditions can lead to paralysis that requires the patient to be attached to a ventilator, requiring round the clock care and constant support simply to exist.

Any person, of any age, in any demographic can be affected by this illness that to this day has no proven cure. 

One thing all caretakers of ALS patients must remember is that the condition is physically and emotionally taxing for the patients but does not deteriorate the cognitive abilities of the affected. The patients are still capable of making autonomous decisions and their intellectual independence must always be respected. 

The progression of the ailment leads to disabilities of the following types:

  • Inability to move or walk
  • Inability to hold objects or control any muscular movement
  • Inability to speak and swallow 
  • Inability to breathe without assistance (require ventilation)

ALS can result in uncontrollable drooling, choking and spasticity or muscle stiffness. 

   

What can Cannabis Do for Patients of ALS?

We’ve read enough about ALS to know how debilitating the condition can be. Even with the treatments available, an ALS patient has a life expectancy of around 2 to 5 years. (It is not an exact number, patients can live upto 10 years since diagnosis and if they’re anything like Mr Hawking, they can lead a life much longer than that.)

Cannabis does not have any treating benefits for the patients but can help reduce the chronic pain that tags along the illness. The herb is also closely associated with spasticity and muscle stiffness. 

Limited research shows that cannabis may be effective at reducing certain symptoms, like appetite loss, pain, depression, spasticity, and drooling.

Spasticity is one major issue that patients of ALS have to suffer and we’re currently looking into cannabis as a potential treatment. 

  • The use of CBD and THC have been approved for the treatment of spasticity in multiple sclerosis and is viewed as a potential off label treatment for the same issue in patients of ALS. Cannabis is known to have muscle relaxant properties that makes it a good substitute to reduce muscular stiffness. 
  • Even some of the side effects of marijuana might work well for patients of ALS. We often associate dry mouth as one of the negatives that come with consistent cannabis consumption. But this can help control drooling in patients with ALS. 
  • ALS patients can be hit hard by the reality of their condition leading to depression and anxiety. Cannabis products with both CBD and THC can be best suited for a condition like this. Higher THC products can help patients who are seeking a euphoric experience, though they must be administered carefully. 
  • Chronic pain can be addressed with cannabis’s capabilities to act as a non-opioid analgesia and anti-inflammatory agent. 

What Research Says?

Both major cannabinoids have found a place in medical research for chronic ailments. That being said, there isn’t enough research to prove their efficacy in treating chronic symptoms. The use of cannabis, however, has still stirred the medical industry to conduct studies on the herb. 

As per a 2004 study done on mice, cannabis proved its ability to delay ALS progression in the class of rodents. This positive result has made researchers hopeful about cannabis’s effects on humans suffering from ALS but a mice based study is not enough to prove the same. 

Currently, there is research being done on cannabis’s benefit for ALS patients through a randomized controlled trial which was initiated in 2020.

 

What Product Will Best Suit a Patient of ALS?

There are multiple ways to take cannabis doses but not all will suit an ALS patient. Most of these patients tend to lose control over their breathing, leading to the constant ventilation support. In such a case, administering doses via smokes and vapes isn’t the smartest idea. The patient will have to be taken off the ventilation for this purpose, making it especially troublesome. 

Since the legalization of 2018, we’ve been introduced to a variety of products that are much easier to consume. Patients that are still capable of swallowing can be given CBD gummies or edibles. Those incapable of any muscular control can use transdermal patches to get their directed doses. 

Since it’s a given that any ALS patient is already chin deep into medications, the possibility of interactions between medication and cannabis is always a grim possibility. 

Patients and their caregivers are advised to always consult their physicians before combining medication with cannabis.