What Are the Benefits of Medical Marijuana for Parkinson’s?

Humans have used cannabis in medical applications for thousands of years. All the way up to prohibition in 1937, the plant was used in a wide array of tinctures, creams, and other medicinal products. Today, we know that cannabis has beneficial effects for a multitude of conditions, including certain degenerative diseases. The benefits of medical marijuana for Parkinson's disease are still being explored, but we do know a fair amount about how cannabis helps patients cope with this difficult condition.

What Is Parkinson's Disease?

hand holding other hand to try to stop tremors caused by parkinson's disease

Parkinson's disease is a disorder of the nervous system, which primarily disrupts movement and motor skills. The disease is progressive, meaning it worsens over time. Parkinson's disease also has no cure, making symptom management paramount. We currently do not know what causes Parkinson's disease, but there may be hereditary factors involved. Key risk factors for Parkinson’s include age and sex; Parkinson's usually begins to develop in late middle age, and affects more men than women.

Symptoms of Parkinson's Disease

human brain on white background

The main symptom of Parkinson’s condition is tremors. People with Parkinson's disease generally have shaky heads and hands, which are the most recognizable signs. The tremors worsen over time, making coordination-based tasks especially difficult. Stiffness is another hallmark of the disease, along with gradually slowing movement. 

The warning signs of Parkinson's disease are quite subtle. Lack of facial expression is one effect, as is difficulty speaking. Sufferers usually find their speech becomes quieter, and slightly slurred. Bradykinesia (slowing of movement) makes daily tasks a challenge. Painfully rigid muscles often restrict motion, and result in deteriorated posture. Many of these symptoms manifest due to a depletion of dopamine in the brain.

Treatments for Parkinson's Disease

medications in a pile showing that medications are used but there might be benefits of medical marijuana for parkinson's disease

Current treatments for this condition are non-standardized and vary from patient to patient. No treatment can reverse the damage done by the disease, but prescription medications can help ease symptoms. The main medications prescribed for Parkinson's disease are: Levodopa, MAO inhibitors, and anticholinergic (which blocks a particular neurotransmitter in the nervous system). These medications generally boost dopamine production, or replicate the function of dopamine. The desired results are reduction in tremors and rigidity, and the improvement of coordination.

In extremely severe cases where Levodopa has resulted in improvements, surgical intervention may be recommended. This can come in the form of deep brain stimulation, wherein a wire is placed in a part of the brain governing movement, and connected to a pacemaker-like device in the chest. The other option is inserting a tube into the intestine, where it steadily releases a form of the medication Duopa. These surgeries are extremely invasive, and only used as a last resort.

Parkinson's and Cannabis

cannabis oil tinctures outside with cannabis leaves around, cbd oil could be one of the benefits of medical marijuana for parkinson's disease

The available research on the benefits of medical marijuana for Parkinson's disease is fairly slim compared to the robust body of research on other conditions. The results of these studies generally conflict, with some concluding cannabis is beneficial for Parkinson's, and others concluding that more research is necessary. However, no study has flat-out stated that cannabis is detrimental for people with this condition, and plenty of anecdotal evidence shows it improves quality of life. To back that up, here are three of the most notable studies on the CBD in cannabis and Parkinson's disease.

A double-blind study followed 21 people with Parkinson's, and gave them CBD capsules totaling either 75 mg or 300 mg per day. The study was designed to determine whether CBD would improve motor symptoms in the patients, and followed a randomized, placebo-controlled structure. This study found no meaningful decrease in motor symptoms, but patients that received the CBD reported higher quality of life.

One symptom of Parkinson's is REM sleep behavior disorder, in which people act out dreams by thrashing about. An open-label study, in which both participants and researchers knew the patients were getting CBD, showed marked improvements in the disorder.

The most positive study was also open-label, and involved the consumption of smoked cannabis. This study found smoking marijuana did improve motor symptoms, by decreasing tremors and reducing slowness.

The theme in all three studies is small sample size, which makes them less scientifically viable. However, the studies provide ample support for the idea that cannabis does help people with Parkinson's disease live better lives. Even if the benefits of medical marijuana for Parkinson's disease don't include motor symptom improvement for everyone, it's clear that many of the peripheral symptoms are improved.

The Best Cannabis Strains for Parkinson's Disease

cannabis buds on top of each other on a table showing strains that might show benefits of medical marijuana for parkinson's disease

As the above studies point out, CBD is the main point of interest in studying the benefits of medical marijuana for Parkinson's disease. Given that most patients with this condition would need to medicate continuously, CBD-rich strains are the best way to go. Harlequin and ACDC are the most common CBD-rich strains, and can be found in nearly every state with a medical marijuana program. Parkinson's disease is a qualifying condition in Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Vermont, and West Virginia.