Updated on April 1, 2020. Medical content reviewed by Dr. Joseph Rosado, MD, M.B.A, Chief Medical Officer
You might be aware of medical marijuana and its ability to offer symptom relief of major diseases like cancer, epilepsy and multiple sclerosis (MS). However, you might not know that medical marijuana for dystonia can help if you or a loved one has the condition. Dystonia afflicts close to 300,000 people in North America and can interfere with daily living.
Dystonia is a movement disorder causing your muscles to involuntarily contract. These contractions lead to repetitive movements and twisting, which can be painful at times. Researchers believe faulty brain signals cause muscles to pull on your body incorrectly, spasm and force your body to twist, move repetitively and form into an abnormal posture. Dystonic tremors sometimes accompany these symptoms.
Types of dystonia can be divided into three groups:
Some individuals inherit dystonia. Others have another disease that causes it. Dystonia can be so severe voluntary movements can make the condition worse.
Possible causes of the condition are:
Pharmaceutical drugs may cause dystonia, particularly neuroleptics, which are often used to treat bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.
There’s no known cure for dystonia as of yet. However, in many cases, the condition doesn’t shorten the lifespan of a person. Dystonia is thought to come from a part of your brain known as basal ganglia.
This group of subcortical nuclei in your brain monitors the speed of movement and controls undesired actions. They’re responsible for sending your muscles signals that instruct them when to move and when to stop moving. With dystonia, these basal ganglia instructions become chaotic and irregular and cause your unwanted muscle contractions and movements.
Dystonia’s clinical features were first announced in 1911, reports the International Parkinson and Movement Disorder Society. This was when three authors described several children afflicted by a syndrome that represented genetic cases of DYT1 dystonia.
In 1975, more than six decades later, the first dystonia conference was held in New York. During this time, dystonia was identified, in addition to severe generalized forms, to encompass poorly progressive segmental and focal cases with adulthood onset like torticollis, blepharospasm and writer’s cramp.
These forms were previously classified among neuroses and were considered independent disorders. In 1984, dystonia received a modern definition. Years after, it became apparent dystonia syndromes are diverse and numerous, prompting the introduction of new terminological descriptors, i.e. heredodegenerative dystonias, dystonia plus, etc., and other classifications. Dystonia’s clinical complexity became fully recognized.
In many cases, dystonia is displayed as abnormal posturing. Opposing muscles will contract at the same time as if competing for total control over a particular part of the body. There are many forms of dystonia, and each case varies in severity.
Symptoms may include:
Due to the constant muscle and brain activity, disturbed sleeping patterns, mood swings, mental stresses, difficulty concentrating and blurred vision are all common symptoms.
Complications depend on the type of dystonia and may include:
Some areas of your body and its functions that dystonia may affect include the following.
Common with cervical dystonia, you experience contractions that cause you to twist your head and turn it to one side. You may also pull forward or backward that may cause pain.
Certain forms of dystonia occur when you’re performing a repetitive activity, like playing a musical instrument or writing.
Typical with oromandibular dystonia, you may experience drooling, slurred speech and difficulty swallowing or chewing. This type of dystonia can become painful and frequently occurs together with blepharospasms or cervical dystonia.
You may experience a whispering or tight voice, particularly if you have spasmodic dystonia, which affects the muscles of the tongue and mouth, which may impact voice and speech. You might also find you have difficulty swallowing. Voice, speech or specialized swallowing therapy may help, along with botulinum toxin injections.
Common with blepharospasms, you may experience involuntary spasms or rapid blinking that cause your eyes to close and result in you becoming functionally blind. Although not typically painful, the spasms may increase when you’re under stress, in bright light or interacting with others. Your eyes may also feel dry.
Dystonia gradually develops in most cases. An exception to this may include acute dystonic reactions caused by certain antipsychotic medications and rapid-onset dystonia parkinsonism that could come on within hours or days.
You may begin experiencing mild symptoms of dystonia at first, such as difficulty chewing or subtle jaw or facial spasms that suggest early jaw or face dystonia. Your speech may change in rhythm or pitch that suggests early signs of spasmodic or laryngeal dysphonia. Early signs of cervical dystonia could cause mild head jerking movements, local neck discomfort or stiff neck.
Your hands may cramp up or become fatigued during manual activities like writing, or you may have difficulty walking, suggesting limb dystonia. Children developing generalized dystonia might start out complaining of leg cramps or a foot turning in. In some cases, an injury to a particular body area may cause focal dystonia.
The dystonia condition can affect your breathing in a few ways. Severe neck dystonia may impact your upper airway and cause you difficulty breathing. You may experience a shortness of breath with dystonia that involves your vocal cords when they close tight, usually when you speak. When you breathe, it requires muscles located between your ribs and your diaphragm, the latter of which is a major muscle of respiration.
Your muscles between your ribs may become stiff due to dystonia causing shortness of breath. Sometimes it may affect your diaphragm. Also, if your dystonia affects your spine, it could cause your torso to twist and make it hard for your lungs to expand when you breathe, causing you shortness of breath.
Statistics on dystonia from the American Association of Neurological Surgeons reveal that:
Also, researchers have identified more than 15 different genetic mutations that contribute to dystonia, reports the National Institutes of Health.
The initial step in treating dystonia is to learn about the underlying cause. Determining the root cause of your dystonia may have a direct impact on your course of treatment. For instance, a person with primary focal dystonia may require a slightly different treatment approach than an individual who has dystonia related to another neurological disorder.
Because dystonia presents so rarely and varies entirely on a case-by-case basis, standard treatment does not exist for the condition. Physical interventions such as physical therapy have not shown significant progress in their ability to heal patients, though it is not said to worsen the condition. Occupational therapists are often paired with patients suffering from symptoms of dystonia to assist them in daily living activities.
Because physiotherapy has proven useful for patients with dystonia-like symptoms with Parkinson’s disease, the same method of treatment has been used on patients with dystonia. Anti-Parkinson’s medications have been utilized for patients suffering from dystonia as well.
The type of treatment you receive typically depends on what causes your dystonia. In cases of secondary dystonia, treating the underlying condition may improve your symptoms.
In addition to medical marijuana for dystonia, In general, there are four standard methods for treating dystonia, depending on the area of your body it affects and how severe your symptoms are. These approaches include the following.
Most forms of focal dystonia are treated with botulinum toxin injections. The doctor may inject small amounts of this toxin into your overactive muscles to change the muscle firing and calm the abnormal movements, and it usually lasts for a few months at a time.
Side effects of Botox include:
Talk to your doctor about these side effects and if the benefits of this treatment would outweigh the risks.
Oral medications are usually given for multifocal, segmental and generalized dystonia. These types of medications include anticholinergic drugs and muscle relaxants or anti-spastic agents.
Side effects of anticholinergic drugs may include:
Antispastic agents or muscle relaxants come with side effects, too, so be sure you’re only taking them under your doctor’s advice and that you’re being monitored carefully. Some common side effects include drowsiness and dizziness, and the drug carries the potential for abuse.
Research into the benefits of physical therapy for dystonia patients remains limited. However, physical intervention is employed to help people with various aspects of daily living. These include improving balance, enhancing mobility, increasing stamina, improving posture and making it easier to accomplish daily living functions, such as going to the bathroom, dressing and undressing, bathing and completing other everyday tasks.
Physical therapy activities for dystonia include strengthening and stretching exercises, along with techniques to increase the range of motion and fine motor skills. Exercises are intended to not only build up underutilized muscles but also prevent weakening of bones. As dystonia is a neurological condition, physical therapy interventions don’t treat the disease directly but rather the symptoms and secondary effects that accompany the disorder.
If you have more severe or widespread dystonia that is debilitating, you may benefit from surgery if other treatments have proven ineffective. Deep brain stimulation (DBS) is the most current and widely used surgical approach.
The surgeon implants thin electrodes into a part of your brain’s basal ganglia in this surgery. The electrodes are attached to a device similar to a pacemaker and implanted in your chest wall. The electrodes then distribute controlled electrical pulses to improve your symptoms of dystonia.
Types of dystonias depend on the regions of the body they affect. Because so much of the disease entails muscle spasms and involuntary contractions, cannabidiol treatment, or medical marijuana, can be incredibly beneficial for treating involuntary muscle spasms. There has been research to support CBD treatment as particularly beneficial for reducing dystonic movement disorders.
Research has found that medical cannabis for dystonia does improve symptoms. Cannabis contains two main cannabinoids that activate the CB1 and CB2 receptors of your endocannabinoid system. These are tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD), and they help regulate the inhibitory and excitatory neurotransmitters necessary to diminish muscle tremors and spasticity.
A study of Sativex, or cannabis medication, in people who had spasticity symptoms due to MS revealed that after four weeks of weed treatment, the spasms traditional efforts didn’t work on were significantly reduced.
The Journal of Pain and Symptom Management published a 2002 case study that reported improved dystonia symptoms in a 42-year-old chronic pain patient. Her subjective pain score, which was at a nine, fell to zero after she inhaled the cannabis smoke. She also needed no additional analgesic drugs for the next 48 hours. Researchers said no other types of treatment provided her with significant relief in her condition.
Contorting muscles and repetitive spasms not only characterize dystonia, but they’re also often accompanied by neuropathic pain. The pain can target any extremity, including your hands. Disabling and painful dystonias can occur in your shoulder, neck and facial areas, and prevent you from being able to speak, move or walk if left untreated.
Now, although cannabis for dystonia can’t cure the condition or reverse any side effects, it’s been said that it can, in many cases, eliminate your pain and cause your muscles to unclench and relax to the point where you’re not severely disabled anymore and may be able to function and move normally.
CBD does seem to help relieve some muscle spasming associated with dystonia but doesn’t appear to help as much as it does when it’s combined with high levels of THC. In treatments of CBD without THC, patients don’t seem to get the relief from residual pain.
Marijuana for dystonia helps ease symptoms of severe pain, nausea and appetite loss due to its antiemetic, analgesic and appetite-stimulating properties. It also has antispasmodic properties that help counteract the involuntary movements that go along with dystonia.
Not only does dystonia cause symptoms of insomnia, tremors and pain similar to restless leg syndrome, but there may also be secondary effects of the continuous brain and muscle activity, including:
When you have dystonia, it affects your overall well-being and ability to function normally each day, which can be stressful and depressing. Fortunately, there are some cannabis and dystonia strains that can help with a number of symptoms. The strains for each symptom are as follows:
For pain related to dystonia, try:
For tremors and involuntary muscle movements associated with dystonia, try:
For insomnia related to dystonia, try:
For depression and stress accompanying dystonia, try:
Of course, you’ll find some conventional treatments for dystonia. For some people, they may be enough. For others, however, they may find these treatments don’t offer much relief, particularly for pain and muscle spasms, so they look to cannabis.
Medical marijuana can help provide relief from dystonia symptoms. All it takes is a simple search for a medical marijuana doctor or dispensary. Dispensaries make it much easier to find prescribing doctors and get your medical weed quickly. There’s no hassle, and you save time.
When it comes to pain, you don’t want to waste any time finding relief. Here at Marijuana Doctors, we can help you improve your quality of life while living with dystonia. There can be ups and downs with dystonia, but living successfully with it is possible.