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Epilepsy and Medical Marijuana

Living with epilepsy is a serious concern for 3.4 million adults and children in the United States. 30% of individuals with epilepsy live with uncontrolled seizures and approximately 1 out of 1,000 people with epilepsy will die annually from Sudden Unexplained Death in Epilepsy (SUDEP.)

Epilepsy is a disorder of the brain causing seizures. This may be caused by a variety of conditions including but not limited to brain tumors, head injuries, central nervous system infections and strokes. These cause challenges to activities of daily living and with early onset epilepsy, particularly in those less than 3 years old, uncontrolled seizures are associated with poor cognitive function later in life.

One of the most common symptoms associated with epilepsy are the aforementioned seizures. These may vary significantly in how they manifest physically, as there are over 30 different types of seizures. The types of seizures fall into the categories of: General and Focal. Generalized seizures affect both sides of the brain or groups of cells on both sides of the brain at the same time. They may produce loss of consciousness, either briefly or for a longer period of time.  Focal seizures can start in one area or group of cells in one side of the brain. In addition, when the beginning of a seizure is unknown, it is classified in the unknown onset seizure category.

Recognizing a seizure may be hard to distinguish. Individuals may seem spacey or confused, whereas others may present with more physical characteristics causing them to collapse or shake uncontrollably. What is the best thing to do when someone is experiencing a seizure?  The best advice is to keep the individual safe until the seizure subsides. Some rare complications can turn life threatening quickly so it is important to dial 911 for emergency assistance. Any concerns should be shared with a doctor or neurologist immediately.

Once diagnosed by a physician, patients will seek treatment to control seizures. Medication, anti-epileptic drugs (AED) in particular are the most common treatment. Frequent side effects effects include dizziness, nausea, headache, vomiting, fatigue, vertigo, ataxia, blurred vision, and tremor. Medical marijuana has the potential to save an epileptic’s life.   Medical marijuana has shown to be a highly responsive, safe and effective treatment option for epilepsy that does not produce the severe side effects of traditional anti-epileptic medication.

Recent studies have shown the efficacy of CBD medications in treating epilepsy. Many studies have included a significant number of patients with Dravet syndrome (DS) and Lennox-Gastaut syndrome (LGS), and have observed reduced seizures as an effect of CBD.  One of the most prominent cases includes 6 year old Charlotte Figi, who was suffering from more than 300 grand mal seizures a week. With approval from a physician, Charlotte started out with a very small dose of Charlotte’s Web, a strain rich in CBD which does not produce any psychoactive “high feeling” effects. Since using high-CBD cannabis oil, Charlotte's seizures have been reduced from over a thousand to a just handful a month. Understanding epilepsy and how treatment with medical cannabis for epilepsy works is imperative to furthering our understanding of the best and most suitable treatments for epilepsy.

Under Act 16 of 2016 (the Pennsylvania Medical Marijuana Act or the Act), the term “medical marijuana” refers to marijuana obtained for a certified medical use by a Pennsylvania resident with a serious medical condition. Patients who are residents of the commonwealth and have a serious medical condition, e.g. epilepsy,  as certified by a physician will be able to obtain medical marijuana at dispensaries that are located in the commonwealth and have a validly-issued permit from the department.

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