What is Glaucoma and Why Does Marijuana Help Alleviate Symptoms?

image of an older woman at the eye doctor getting her eyes checked

Cannabis has been used to treat medical ailments for thousands of years – from nausea to earaches to joint pain and everything in between. With a resurgence in the use of medical marijuana, as well as its increased legal status, patients with a number of illnesses can find relief from the plant. One illness that qualifies a patient for a medical card in many states is glaucoma, a condition that causes damage to the eye's optic nerve. The use of marijuana to treat glaucoma dates back to 1213 BC, where ancient Egyptians prescribed cannabis for a number of illnesses, including the eye condition. Currently, states that allow medical cards for those diagnosed with glaucoma include:

While each state has different procedures for how to gain a medical card, marijuana is clearly considered treatment for patients that reside in these states.

What is Glaucoma? drawing showing a normal eye vs an eye with glaucoma

Glaucoma is often brought up when discussing the benefits marijuana can have, but what even is glaucoma? Essentially, glaucoma causes an increased pressure in the eye (called intraocular pressure or IOP) which then sends images to the brain. As it continues, glaucoma can lead to vision loss and permanent blindness without treatment. The condition is caused by blocked fluid in the optic nerve, which builds up and causes the pressure.

Doctors are unsure of what causes the blockage in the first place, but glaucoma can be inherited from parents. There are also several other factors that can affect the likelihood of being diagnosed, including age, poor vision or trauma to the eye.

Symptoms of glaucoma often go unnoticed for some time. Since these symptoms are not noticeable right away, glaucoma is often referred to as a "sneak thief of vision". Doctors stress the importance of regular eye exams with a specialist to catch glaucoma early on. Once symptoms do appear, glaucoma patients may have sudden eye pain, headaches, and seeing halos around lights. WebMD stresses the importance of contacting a doctor if any of these symptoms occur.

How Can Marijuana Help? photo of a marijuana bud coming out a gold prescription bottle labeled "medical cannabis"

Since glaucoma cannot be prevented, current treatments include eye drops or surgery. Eye drops can reduce the fluid buildup in eyes, but side effects include eye irritation or blurred vision. Another option is either laser surgery or microsurgery, which works to open a channel for fluid to drain out of the eye. Though you cannot prevent or cure glaucoma, treating the condition early is the best way to keep the condition under control.

However, marijuana is often mentioned as a treatment that can help reduce irritation from glaucoma. This notion initially gained traction with the help of Robert Randall, an activist who helped launch the medical marijuana movement in the 70s. Randall suffered from advanced glaucoma at the age of 26, but found that when he smoked marijuana the halos of light he often saw from his IOP disappeared. He was later criminally charged for growing marijuana to relieve his symptoms, but brought the case to court to argue the medical benefits of the plant. He won the D.C. Superior court case in 1976, as he argued the marijuana was a medical necessity to prevent him from going blind. Because of his activism, Randall helped lead the way for more research and legalization of marijuana for medical purposes in the United States.

Several other studies have looked at how marijuana reduces IOP in patients with glaucoma. One study in the 1970s found that THC reduces this inflammation, and another more recent study found IOP is reduced 60-65 percent in both normal patients and those that suffer from glaucoma. Doctors are still unsure of why marijuana causes this reduction, but it most likely relates to how cannabinoid receptors work with reducing aqueous flow or working with other receptors found in the human eye. Researchers also found that consuming cannabinoids via smoking, ingesting, pills and intravenous injections all had the same positive effect on patients. This is great news for those who prefer not to smoke due to other health risks.

While this research is promising, many doctors advise there are negative aspects of consuming marijuana to treat glaucoma. Current treatments for glaucoma are just as effective or more than marijuana, and treatments will become even better in the future. Others note that a dose of marijuana only lasts 3-4 hours, while glaucoma affects patients throughout the entire day. Marijuana can also decrease blood pressure, which ultimately decreases blood flow to the optic nerve. Tolerance to the drug and irritation to smoke are also issues brought up when opposing the use of medical marijuana for glaucoma.

Though marijuana is not considered a primary treatment, there are ways it can provide temporary relief. Researchers note that other treatments can relieve symptoms, but marijuana provides immediate relief of IOP once THC has taken effect. Despite marijuana only producing effects for a few hours, marijuana's short term benefits may provide relief when it is needed most.

What Are the Best Marijuana Options for Treating Glaucoma? image of green grass behind a person's hand holding a joint with smoke around it

As noted earlier, marijuana can be ingested in numerous ways to provide relief for glaucoma patients. There are several options for patients to consume their medical marijuana in a way that feels best for them.

Smoking provides immediate relief as THC takes its effect almost immediately. When choosing strains, look for flower that offers headache and pain relief. Some good choices include:

  • Death Star – an indica hybrid, containing high levels of THC and known to relieve headaches.
  • Jack Frost – a sativa hybrid, known for relieving migraines and muscle tension
  • Moonshine Haze – another sativa hybrid, this strain is known to have high levels of THC while also providing headache relief and mental clarity
  • Sensi Star – another indica hybrid, Sensi is great for general pain including headaches and areas of inflammation

Though smoking may cause lung irritation, patients have the option to buy a vape to reduce any damage smoking can have. Many vapes allow users to use their own herb, while others use cartridges that attach to a battery. Users can also turn to dabbing with concentrates, which is a more potent way to consume marijuana.

As mentioned earlier, patients can have the same positive results from consuming THC via edibles or pills rather than inhaling the medicine. This is a great option for a longer lasting high, which can mean consuming less marijuana throughout the day. While edibles can vary by brand and potency, dosing correctly can have great effects for a glaucoma patient.

Final Thoughts

With glaucoma considered an approved condition for a medical card in over 20 states, it’s clear that marijuana provides relief for lots of people. Despite other techniques to treat glaucoma, the use of marijuana is a natural and effective way to combat IOP in patients. While many doctors warn of adverse side effects, people that suffer from glaucoma ultimately will know what works best for them.

For some patients, surgery may be the answer, while for others consuming marijuana throughout the day will provide the needed treatment. And with the help of Robert Randall, glaucoma became a condition that paved the way for medical marijuana treatment here in the U.S. Though more research is being conducted on the medical benefits of marijuana, the plant is still recognized and used as a viable treatment for glaucoma.