Can cannabis really be a treatment for epilepsy? The family of Billy Caldwell, an eleven-year-old with severe epilepsy claim that it can!
And they are not the only ones. There are more and more families who are using medical cannabis to treat their children who have epilepsy. The Tedx Talk video looks at some of the numerous success stories of families who have benefited from such a use of medical marijuana:
Watch the video:
Treating epilepsy is not so simple
Epilepsy is defined as a chronic brain disorder that is characterized by multiple, frequent seizures, fits of involuntary movement varying from a few seconds to minutes. These episodes could be accompanied by a loss of consciousness and range from mild to more severe. In addition to these fits, epileptics also have a higher risk of other health issues, including mental, physical and motor dysfunction, psychological disturbances, and even earlier death. This is especially true for those who also experience suffocation, heart failure and falls or injuries in addition to their seizures.
This is considered to be among the most common neurological diseases, affecting around 50 million people in the world, with an annual rate of 2.4 million people being diagnosed. About 2.2 – 3 million people in the US (or 1 % of the total population) suffer from epilepsy, and many are children or older adults. One of every twenty-six people are expected to develop epilepsy at some time in their life.
The good news is that 60-70% of all cases of epilepsy can be treated with various AEDs (anti-epileptic drugs) such as Acetazolamide. A large number of others can opt for other treatments including brain surgery or specialized radiation treatments.
There are, however, people who do not respond to the medicine and for whom surgery is too risky and for them their only hope could come from a rather unorthodox source, that is cannabis!
Cannabis as an option for treating epilepsy
The traditional treatments for epilepsy have until now have included:
- Anti-epileptic drugs, such as Calabaza and Acetazolamide, which are taken orally to help prevent epileptic fits.
- Ketogenic diets, which mean high-fat and low-carbohydrate diets that aim to reduce seizures’ occurrence.
- Focal cortical surgery, removing that section of the brain responsible for seizures, a part of the temporal lobe or one of the brain’s major lobes
- VNS (Valgus nerve stimulation), in which a device is strapped to the chest and sends electric pulses through the neck in order to reduce or eliminate seizures occurring as a result of excessive activity in the brain.
- Gamma knife radiation, which uses specialized tools to non-invasively burn away parts of the brain which cause epilepsy.
- Amygdala/hippocampus surgery is less invasive that focal resection surgery and removes selected parts of the brain instead of the major lobes.
Recently, however, there is a rise in the use of products containing cannabis components like THC or CBD as methods or treating epilepsy. Both THC and CBD have been shown to reduce pain and inflammation, to control seizures and foster muscle control in many studies, although there is still need of more controlled clinical trials. In states where they are legal, Dronabinol and other medical cannabis products have been available by prescription for more than a decade.
And for Billy and other patients with epilepsy, this option could be a highly effective one and possibly the only option.
Billy’s story – Cannabis stops his seizures
Let us introduce Billy Caldwell. He is a boy from Norther Ireland with severe intractable epilepsy, which is a form that cannot be treated by medicinal or dietary measures. Before his treatment, he would sometimes have almost 100 seizures a day.
His family eventually approached an expert on childhood epilepsy in California, only to be told by the medical team that they could not remove the problematic lesion in the temporal lobe because of the risk of severely damaging Billy’s speech and memory.
As a last resort, Billy was given cannabis oil, consisting of cannibidiol (CBD), the component of the plant that doesn’t produce a ‘high’. In addition, he was also administered THCA (tetrahydrocannabinolic acid), a component which doesn’t have psychoactive effects. The result was that, after 8 months of treatment under careful medical supervision, Billy completely stopped having seizures!
Billy’s mother, Mrs Caldwell says that he has been free of seizures since then and that it’s incredible. She goes on to say that the oil has also helped improved his eye contact and ankle support.
Billy’s overseas prescription was transferred so he could continue the treatment at home and Billy thus became the first to receive a prescription for marijuana in the UK.
Is it legal?
Medical marijuana is legal in a number of countries, including Australia, Mexico and Germany, and in 29 states in the US and Guam, although still illegal at federal level.
More than 1.2 million people in the U.S. today are regularly using marijuana and cannabis products for treating various illnesses, and there are several products available to those with prescriptions.
However, the FDA has approved very few medical marijuana products because of the lack of controlled clinical trials and confirmation of benefits.
In addition, those cannabis products that are available in some states are inaccessible to epileptics who live in the other states where they are illegal.
How can epileptics get access to medical cannabis?
For those of you who would like to try cannabis products to treat epilepsy:
- First check that it is legal in your state
- Find out how to become a ‘state-authorized patient’
- See your doctor for a prescription
- Do research on how to use medical marijuana properly
- Put pressure on the policymakers to make medical marijuana legal in your state if it isn’t
- Think about joining an advocacy group so that all Americans can get safe access
You can get in touch with Epilepsy Foundation and Safe Access Now if you would like additional information about epilepsy and medical marijuana.
If Billy’s story can teach us something, it’s that anyone suffering from debilitating epilepsy should have the right to try out medical marijuana if they wish. The potential benefits could save lives.