Dystonia is a neurological movement disorder characterized by sustained muscle contractions, abnormal muscle tension, and involuntary, painful muscle contractions. Statistics indicate that over 300,000 people in North America are affected by this disorder that is the third most common movement disorder after Parkinson’s disease and nerve tremors. These involuntary and sometimes painful movements may affect either a single muscle or an entire group of muscles like those in the arms, neck, or legs or even the entire body. People afflicted with dystonia usually have no associated psychiatric disorders and they have normal intelligence.
A few preclinical studies and case reports investigating the use of medical cannabis to control the symptoms of dystonia, primarily these twisting and repetitive movements or abnormal postures are now available in recently published scientific literature. The July issue of The Journal of Pain and Symptom Management carries a 2002 case study that reports an improvement in the symptoms of dystonia after a 42 year old patient suffering from chronic pain smoked medical marijuana. It was reported by investigators and medical researchers that the pain score (subjectively) dropped from a high 9 to nothing (considering a 0-10 analog visual scale of pain) after the patient inhaled MMJ. Additionally, the subject did not need additional analgesic medication for the next forty eight hours.
Investigators concluded that there were no existing treatment plan or intervention to date that has produced such an overall dramatic improvement in the condition of patient’s like these. The same results were obtained in a case study that was conducted on another 25 year old patient who was suffering from Wilson’s disease that triggered generalized dystonia. In the August 2004 issue of the journal Movement Disorders, an Argentinian research team documented their findings of the patient exhibiting significant clinical improvement after the inhalation of medical cannabis. In the same year, a team of German researchers at the Hannover Medical School administered 5 mg of the active cannabinoid in medical marijuana called THC to a 38-year-old professional pianist.
The musician’s dystonia was successfully treated following the administration of a single dose of THC in this placebo controlled trial. Researchers reported that prior to cannabinoid treatment; the patient was unresponsive to standard medications and therefore, was no longer even performing publicly. However, there was a clear improvement of motor control in the affected hand of the subject and the patient was also able to play technically demanding and complex literature just two hours after the intake of THC. The subject was not able the play the same pieces of music before the treatment process. These results clearly indicate that medical cannabis significantly alleviates the symptoms of this type of dystonia called focal dystonia.
In 2002, a placebo-controlled randomized study that investigated the use of Cesamet (a synthetic oral cannabinoid naboline) in 15 patients afflicted with segmental primary and generalized dystonia showed no significant improvement in their condition. Investigators concluded that this outcome may be dose related and it has nothing to do with the efficacy of medical cannabis in helping patients cope with their dystonia symptoms. High doses of the natural non-psychoactive CBD (cannabinoid cannabidiol) and synthetic cannabinoids are known to moderate the progression of the disease in animals as indicated by at least one recent preclinical trial and further investigation regarding the use of cannabis and cannabinoids in humans is underway.