WHAT IS PARKINSON’S DISEASE?
Parkinson’s disease is a progressive nervous system disorder characterized by tremors, muscle stiffness, and bradykinesia (slowness of movement).
The area of the brain that regulates movement, called the substantia nigra, has a concentration of cells that produce dopamine. Dopamine acts as a neurotransmitter, carrying signals to other parts of the brain to control movement. In Parkinson’s disease, these cells degenerate and produce less and less dopamine. When between 60% and 80% of these cells are damaged, the motor symptoms of Parkinson’s appear and the patient is increasingly unable to regulate movements and emotions.
Experts do not know what causes Parkinson’s. Most people do not develop the disease until they are over 60 years old. It is possible that exposure to environmental toxins might be responsible; some cases suggest a hereditary factor.
According to the American Parkinson’s Disease Association, approximately one million Americans suffer from Parkinson’s. The disease is the second most common neurodegenerative disorder in the country, following Alzheimer’s, and currently the 14th leading cause of death across all age groups.
PARKINSON’S DISEASE SYMPTOMS
Early indications of Parkinson’s disease include loss of smell, constipation, and trouble sleeping. The motor symptoms of Parkinson’s disease typically affect one side of the body first and stay worst on that side.
Common symptoms include:
- Constipation and bladder problems
- Difficulty swallowing
- Difficulty writing
- Emotional swings and depression
- Impaired posture and balance
- Loss of automatic movements, such as blinking or smiling
- Muscle stiffness and rigidity
- Sleep disturbances
- Slowed movement (bradykinesia)
- Slurred, soft, hesitant, or rapid speech
HOW MEDICAL MARIJUANA HELPS PARKINSON’S DISEASE PATIENTS
In 2014, Clinical Neuropharmacology reported that marijuana improves Parkinson’s motor symptoms including tremors, rigidity, and bradykinesia, as well as non-motor symptoms such as pain and sleep disorders. Follow-up studies appear to support these results, with a 2015 survey finding:
“Cannabis was rated as the most effective therapy for sleep and mood improvement amongst all complementary and alternative medications.”
Traditional Parkinson’s disease medications have unpleasant side effects, including uncontrolled involuntary movements (dyskinesia). Medical marijuana offers a different approach to treatment. Recent research suggests that the endocannabinoid system is significantly involved in Parkinson’s disease. It appears that the cannabinoid compounds in marijuana bind to dopamine receptors to reduce the effects of lessening dopamine in the brain.
Parkinson’s patients who use medical marijuana report that they have better control over their movements and their tremors are reduced. Medical marijuana also increases subjective well-being and helps alleviate pain and stiffness. A laboratory study on Parkinson’s cells suggests that the neuroprotective characteristics of medical cannabis might save neurons from degeneration caused by Parkinson’s disease.