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Medical Marijuana and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

What Is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)?

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a severe anxiety disorder that can develop after exposure to any event which results in psychological trauma. Symptoms include: recurrent re-experiencing of the trauma, sleep problems, irritability, anger, poor concentration, blackouts, and a phobia of places, people, and experiences that remind the sufferer of the trauma.

Medical Marijuana and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

Post-traumatic stress disorder, known colloquially as PTSD, is an anxiety disorder caused by the experience of traumatic events. Combat, car accidents and abuse are just a few examples of events that can lead to PTSD. A person has PTSD if the initial reaction to the stress of these events, which includes fear, nausea, dizziness, depression and/or sleep disturbances, lasts for several weeks or more. The symptoms can last for decades.

 The three main characteristics of PTSD are re-living of traumatic events, increased arousal and avoidance. Re-living can manifest as flashbacks or nightmares and may be triggered by reminders of the events, which leads to avoidance of those reminders. Increased arousal is a state of hyper vigilance, which can manifest as paranoia. These PTSD behaviors and experiences are often accompanied by acute anxiety, nausea, avoidance of activities that were once commonplace, anger, self-medicating and relationship sabotage. 

PTSD can be alleviated or eliminated with cognitive behavioral therapy, but it is not always successful. Medication can be used to treat the anxiety, sleep disturbances and depression that accompany PTSD, but these too are not always successful. Studies have shown that medical marijuana can help treat PTSD symptoms in even treatment resistant cases. Cannabinoid receptors are located in various places throughout the body and brain, so both mental and physical symptoms can be altered with medical marijuana treatment.

Synthetic Cannabinoid for Treatment of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

The Canadian Forces Health Services Operational Trauma and Stress Support Centre in Ottawa conducted an outpatient study on medical marijuana for the treatment of PTSD between 2004 and 2006. They studied 47 individuals with PTSD-related nightmares who were given a nabilone, "an endocannabinoid receptor agonist" to treat those nightmares. The study found that 72 percent of the patients had far fewer nightmares of stopped having them altogether over the course of their treatment. Some of the patients also saw benefits in their amount of sleep and their waking PTSD symptoms, such as flashbacks and hyper vigilance. 

PTSD sufferers often experience anxiety-related nausea and vomiting. Nabilone is already used as treatment for nausea and vomiting in cancer patients. Therefore, nabilone may have several benefits for PTSD sufferers beyond what the above study has shown. However, study of the use of nabilone for treatment of PTSD is thus far limited.

Medical Marijuana and PTSD Anxiety and Depression

Studies show both negative and positive results for the use of marijuana for anxiety and depression. Some individuals with PTSD will feel a significant lessening of these symptoms. Others may feel an increase in them, as well as an increase in paranoia. However, the pills that doctors prescribe for the treatment of PTSD have similar opposing effects. For example, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors can increase symptoms of depression and anxiety. In fact, some of these drugs can produce suicidal thoughts and behaviors. No conclusive causal relationship has been found between medical marijuana and suicide.

arijuana, PTSD and Reduced Risk

Studies show, and the Department of Veterans Affairs agrees, that self-medication (substance abuse to treat illness) can be caused by post-traumatic stress disorder. When prescribed medications do not help, sufferers ingest drugs like marijuana and alcohol to alleviate their symptoms. Because marijuana is not accepted as a treatment for PTSD in most areas, this self-medication is often done without the knowledge of the sufferers' therapists and physicians. If PTSD sufferers were allowed prescription cannabis, the risk for side effects, overuse, legal complications and stigma can be reduced or eliminated.

As mentioned above, certain medications used for the treatment of PTSD can cause severe adverse reactions. There is also treatment resistant PTSD. Patients who cannot take the medications prescribed for PTSD are left with therapy only, which may not work. In some of these cases, medical marijuana could alleviate symptoms, thus reducing the risk of suicide, which is high in PTSD, and increasing quality of life.

In the event that there are adverse effects to marijuana use, such as psychosis, paranoia and increased anxiety, in PTSD sufferers, doctors may not know whether it is the PTSD or drug use if the marijuana is not prescribed. Prescribed medical marijuana with proper monitoring by a mental health professional ensures that potential side effects that are contrary to the patient's goals are observed and the medication is adjusted accordingly. Self-medication does not provide such a fail-safe, though it is the only marijuana treatment option for thousands of PTSD sufferers.

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