Can cannabis provide relief from epilepsy? The family of 11-year-old Billy Caldwell, a young man with severe epilepsy, would answer: yes!
And they would not be alone. More and more families are turning to medical cannabis to help treat children with epilepsy. This Tedx Talk video discusses just a few of the many success stories experienced by families whose children have benefitted from medical marijuana:
Treating Epilepsy is Not a Simple Matter
Epilepsy is a chronic disorder of the brain, characterized by multiple, recurring seizures. Epileptic seizures – episodes of involuntary movement that could accompany a loss of consciousness – vary from a few seconds to a few minutes, and could be mild or severe. Those with epilepsy are at higher risk of other health problems, like physical, mental, and motor dysfunction, psychological disorders – and even early death, especially if their seizures accompany heart failure, suffocation, and/or falls and injuries.
This serious disorder is, however, also one of the most common neurological diseases around the world. Epilepsy affects 50 million people worldwide, with 2.4 million people diagnosed every year. In the US, 1% of the population (2.2 to 3 million people) have epilepsy, with many of these people being children and older adults. One in twenty-six people will develop epilepsy in their lifetime.
Luckily, 60-70% of all epileptic cases are effectively treatable by various anti-epileptic drugs (AED), like tablets of Acetazolamide. A majority of other patients may opt for more physical treatments or surgery, like specialized radiation treatments or brain surgery.
But there are also those for whom medicine does not work and surgery is too dangerous an option. For these patients, their only hope of treatment may come from an unusual source: cannabis!
Cannabis as a Treatment Option
Traditional treatment options for epilepsy have so far included:
- Anti-epileptic medication. Drugs like Acetazolamide and Clobazam can be taken orally to effectively help prevent epileptic seizures.
- A ketogenic diet. Eating a low-carbohydrate, high-fat diet could potentially help reduce the occurrence of epileptic seizures.
- Focal cortical resection surgery. This highly effective procedure removes the section of the brain that is responsible for seizure – more commonly, a small part of the temporal lobe or any of the brain’s major lobes.
- Vagus nerve stimulation (VNS). A battery-operated device, strapped to the chest, regularly sends electric pulses through the vagus nerve of the neck. This can effectively reduce and/or eliminate epileptic seizures, which occur due to irregular, excessive electric activity in the brain.
- Gamma Knife radiation. Using specialized tools, gamma radiation can non-invasively and effectively burn away epilepsy-causing parts of the brain.
- Selective amygdala/hippocampus surgery. Slightly less invasive than focal resection surgery, this procedure can remove selective parts of the brain structures other than the major lobes, for those with scarring in these structures.
However, medical products containing components of cannabis, such as CBD or THC, are now on the rise as possible treatment methods for patients with epilepsy. While more controlled clinical trials are needed to fully investigate the effectiveness of cannabis in treating epilepsy, both CBD and THC have been found in multiple laboratory studies to reduce pain and inflammation, control epileptic seizures and/or foster muscle control. Medical cannabis products, like Dronabinol, are currently available by prescription in states where medical marijuana is legal – and have been for over a decade.
For certain patients with epilepsy, like Billy, it may turn out to be a highly effective treatment option – if not the only option.
Billy’s Story: Cannabis Stops Epileptic Seizures
Meet Billy Caldwell. He lives in Castlederg, Northern Ireland – and he has severe intractable epilepsy, a form of epilepsy not treatable by dietary or medicinal measures. Before treatment, he would experience up to 100 seizures a day.
Billy’s family eventually sought out a childhood epilepsy expert in California, only to be told that surgery was not an option. The medical team could not remove the problematic lesion in Billy’s left temporal lobe, as there was a chance that it would severely damage his speech and memory.
Billy’s last hopes at treating epilepsy thus came in the form of cannabis oil, which consisted of cannibidiol (CBD) – a component of the cannabis plant that does not produce a “high”. Billy was also administered tetrahydrocannabinolic acid (THCA), a component of cannabis which does have psychoactive effects. Under the careful eye of a medical doctor, Billy underwent treatment for 8 months – and stopped having seizures completely!
“Billy is now 250 days seizure free – it’s just incredible,” reported Mrs Caldwell. Mrs Caldwell also says that the oil has helped with Billy’s autism, saying that his ankle support and eye contact have improved.
By transferring his prescription overseas to continue treatment at home, Billy also became the first person to receive a prescription for medical marijuana in the United Kingdom.
Is medical cannabis legal?
Medical marijuana is legal in countries like Germany, Australia, and Mexico. In the United States, medical marijuana is illegal on a federal level, but legal to use in 29 states and Guam.
Today, over 1.2 million people in the United States regularly use marijuana and cannabis products to treat various illness. Several medical cannabis products, such as Dronabinol and Nabilone, are widely available to those with a prescription.
However, a lack of robust, controlled clinical trials on the effect of cannabis products means that the medical benefits of marijuana have not been confirmed. As a result, very few marijuana medical products have been approved by the FDA.
The fact that medical marijuana is only legal in certain states also makes existing cannabis products inaccessible to patients with epilepsy who live in other states.
How can patients with epilepsy access medical cannabis?
If you or your loved ones would like to try treating epilepsy with cannabis products:
- Check first that medical marijuana is legal in your state.
- Learn how to become a state-authorized patient.
- Talk to your doctor about getting a cannabis prescription.
- Do your research on how to use medical marijuana.
- If medical marijuana is not legal in your state, put pressure on policymakers to make medical marijuana accessible for patients in your state.
- Consider joining an advocacy group to fight for safe access to medical marijuana for all Americans.
If Billy’s story can teach us one thing about the potential benefits of medical cannabis, it’s this: anyone with debilitating epilepsy should have the right to try it out, if they so wish. It could very well save a life.