Fibromyalgia sufferers have to deal with a lot—musculoskeletal pain, fatigue, problems sleeping, and memory and mood issues. The disorder can also come with other painful conditions, such as migraines and irritable bowel syndrome.
There’s no cure for fibromyalgia, so to date sufferers—more likely to be women than men—are usually prescribed one of three medications to deal with the symptoms:
However, these medications are largely ineffective and come with a variety of undesirable side effects like:
- Panic attacks
- Weight gain
Fortunately, plenty of anecdotal evidence exists for how well cannabis treats fibromyalgia symptoms, especially the pain. A 2014 survey of more than 1,300 fibromyalgia patients by the National Pain Foundation and National Pain Report showed that cannabis was more effective than the three traditional fibromyalgia drugs were in dealing with:
- Deep tissue pain
- Lack of sleep
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Why Isn’t Cannabis Promoted as a Fibromyalgia Treatment?
In fact, cannabis seems to be such a promising treatment that it’s hard to understand why it hasn’t been studied and explored further. According to neurologist and medical scientist Dr. Ethan Russo, director of research and development at the International Cannabis and Cannabinoids Institute, any cure with “cannabis in the name” has a “pejorative connation that has impeded education, even in medical school.”
With marijuana’s long status as an illegal drug, it’s been hard to get the serious attention cannabis needs to prove it works as therapeutic medicine.
But with his extensive research into the medical uses of marijuana, Dr. Russo is doing his part to repair its reputation. In fact, his 2016 study, “Clinical Endocannabinoid Deficiency Reconsidered,” has evidence that cannabis is uniquely positioned as a successful therapy for sufferers of syndromes such as fibromyalgia, migraines and irritable bowel syndrome. And that the plant does this by addressing an endocannabinoid deficiency, which may be an underlying cause of these conditions.
Endocannabinoid System 101
According to Phytecs, an organization that coordinates research into the endocannabinoid system (ECS), “the ECS is one of the largest homeostatic systems in the human body, with elements throughout the brain and in every major organ. Scientific research has shown that changes in ECS activity may correlate with a wide range of disease states.” And that modulating the ECS with new therapies has the potential to help treat many of these.
There are three basic parts to the ECS:
- Enzymes that control endocannabinoid levels
- Endocannabinoid receptors
The cannabinoid receptors in the brain, spinal cord, nerves, gut, organs and other locations help the body maintain its equilibrium and are involved with physiological processes that include:
- Pain sensation
The body naturally makes endocannabinoids, which keep the ECS balanced and functioning. Cannabinoids in cannabis also interact with ECS receptors and some even behave like certain endocannabinoids.
For example, researchers have discovered that the cannabinoid tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) has a very similar chemical structure to the endocannabinoid anandamide, which is known as the bliss molecule and is responsible for feelings of pleasure.
How Does Marijuana Work With the ECS to Help Fibromyalgia Sufferers?
Because the ECS plays a role in governing so many of the body’s major systems, if it’s imbalanced, then this could be the reason why fibromyalgia sufferers experience such a wide variety of symptoms. So, adding cannabinoids from the cannabis plant could remedy the deficiency and relieve symptoms.
In an interview with the nonprofit organization Project CBD, Dr. Russo talks about the potential of cannabidiol (CBD) as an effective treatment for what he calls clinical endocannabinoid deficiency (CED).
“Firstly, [CBD] synergizes with THC,” Dr. Russo explains, “so it complements the ability of THC to treat pain. While in its own right it’s an excellent anti-inflammatory without the liabilities that we get from nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. They have tendencies to produce serious side effects like ulcers, heart attacks and strokes. These just aren’t a liability with cannabidiol.”
Evidence for Treating Endocannabinoid Deficiency With Cannabis
So far, the efficacy of treating CED with cannabis is still largely theoretical, but Phytecs is working with a number of leading research institutions, contract development and manufacturing organizations worldwide to prove theory and provide practical treatments.
And Dr. Russo points out that there’s increasing evidence linking CED to various conditions. For example, a study in Italy links lower levels of anandamide in the cerebrospinal fluid to migraine development, which many fibromyalgia sufferers develop.
For its part, Phytecs is looking at different ways to address CED, including herbal treatments and lifestyle and diet changes. “Cannabis is certainly in the mix,” Dr. Russo says. “We’re interested in developing more focused chemovars, or chemical varieties of cannabis that would work better on certain diseases that maybe haven’t had as much attention before.”
Dr. Russo adds: “There are more cannabinoid receptors in the brain than there are for all of the neurotransmitters put together. Recognizing that fact, why would one ignore this system? Why isn’t this being taught? Our public needs to know.”
Photo credit: Chad Madden