Updated on January 17, 2021.
Medical content reviewed by Dr. Joseph Rosado, MD, M.B.A, Chief Medical Officer
The Ohio State Medical Board has contributed a new qualifying health condition for a medical cannabis card. Thousands of residents with a condition called cachexia can now find relief from painful symptoms. The new addition of cachexia to the list of qualifying health conditions is the first time the Ohio State Medical Board has officially recommended an expansion of a new disease or symptom to the statewide medical cannabis program.
Cachexia is a formal diagnosis for a group of symptoms that primarily impacts cancer patients. It is common for patients who suffer certain types of cancers, including lung and respiratory cancer, or cancer of the digestive tract.
Symptoms for patients diagnosed with Cachexia can include:
Loss of appetite
Muscle wasting and loss
Involuntary weight loss
Loss of strength
Patients who develop early-stage one cancers usually do not develop cachexia. However, it is common for patients who develop advanced forms of cancer. About 8 out of every 10 people with advanced-stage three or stage four cancer. It is also a common diagnosis for patients who have HIV/AIDS and kidney disease. Some patients diagnosed with heart disease may also develop cachexia.
What Happens When a Patient is Diagnosed with Cachexia?
Cachexia is sometimes referred to as the “wasting disease,” as patients can lose weight very quickly and develop life-threatening health conditions as a result of the condition. Scientists do not fully understand why patients develop the condition, as it caused by disorders in multiple areas of the body and impairment of the functioning of several major organs.
For patients who have cachexia, the cells within the muscles of the body, fat cells, and liver cells become insulin resistant. Insulin is a beta-peptide hormone and regulates the metabolism of carbohydrates. Insulin helps draw the glucose for energy out of blood cells to essentially feed energy to muscles, tissues, and organs.
When a patient develops cachexia, the muscles, organs, and tissues lose the ability to absorb the glucose (sugar) energy from cells. The result causes a steady chain reaction that starves the muscles, organs, and tissues of vital energy. They begin to shrink and function less efficiently, as they are robbed of metabolic energy. The first symptoms are energy loss, which is usually followed by muscle wasting (or shrinking of muscle mass) and loss of mobility and strength.
For cancer patients, researchers believe that cancerous cells within the body emit a number of chemicals that trigger inflammation (cytokines) which may trigger and escalate muscle wasting and impair organ functioning. The cytokines also speed up the metabolism of the patient, which causes calories to be burned faster, and compromises the absorption of essential calories, vitamins, and nutrients, promoting rapid weight loss (depending on the stage of the condition). This condition is also referred to as sarcopenia.
Cachexia weakens all aspects of immune system functioning and can greatly impact the patients’ ability to successfully complete chemotherapy treatments for cancer. Patients feel weakness, a loss of appetite, low energy, and in advanced stages, it can impair mobility. Severe cases of cachexia can result in permanent disability.
Medical Cannabis is Less Expensive Than Prescription Marinol (Synthetic THC)
One of the reasons that the Ohio State Medical Board supported the addition of cachexia to the qualifying conditions for a medical cannabis card, was to improve access to THC in a more affordable way for patients. A prescription medication called Marinol is available, however, it is quite expensive. For patients and caregivers on a limited income, the alternative of medical cannabis to source therapeutic THC is more affordable.
The average age of patients diagnosed with cachexia in the United States is 67 years. It is estimated that almost 9 million Americans are currently diagnosed with the degenerative disease. Diagnoses of cachexia in populations increase by 1% annually, and it is a leading complicating factor and contributing condition to terminal cancer diagnoses.