The term ‘ataxia’ describes a group of debilitating movement disorders. There are many different types of ataxia, and they can all affect essential functions, including balance, coordination, and speech. Unfortunately, there is currently no cure.
The lack of effective ataxia treatments has led some patients to wonder whether medical marijuana or CBD oil could help. In this article, we explain all about using cannabis for ataxia. Read on to learn more.
What Is Ataxia?
Ataxia is not one condition but a group of conditions that affect the cerebellum region of the brain. The cerebellum is responsible for controlling balance, limb coordination, speech, and eye movement. Ataxia can also affect other parts of the nervous system, including the spinal cord and peripheral nerves.
When cell damage occurs in these structures, it can have a significant impact on a person’s life. Everyday activities can become challenging, and in some cases, life expectancy may decrease.
However, there are several different types of ataxia, and each one produces slightly different effects.
Types of Ataxia
It is possible to categorize ataxia into three main groups:
This type of ataxia occurs as a result of brain trauma, alcohol misuse, nutritional deficiencies, or other conditions, including multiple sclerosis (MS), stroke, or brain tumors.
Hereditary ataxia occurs due to a genetic mutation. Common types of hereditary ataxia include Friedreich’s ataxia, ataxia-telangiectasia, and spinocerebellar ataxia (SCA).
Idiopathic late-onset cerebellar ataxia (ILOCA):
Progressive brain damage occurs over time for unknown reasons.
The symptoms of ataxia can vary depending on the type. However, the most common ataxia symptoms include difficulty with:
- Balance and walking
- Eye movement
Some other ataxia symptoms that occur less frequently include:
- Muscle stiffness and cramps
- Curvature of the spine
- Heart problems
- Reduced immunity
- Peripheral neuropathy
In some cases, these symptoms can remain stable for many years. However, in most patients, they become progressively worse over time.
Traditional Ataxia Treatments (Not Marijuana or CBD)
There is no cure for ataxia and, therefore, treatments aim to support patients in their everyday lives. Doctors may prescribe medication to relieve individual symptoms, such as muscle stiffness or bladder problems.
Some other therapies which may help include:
- Speech and language therapy
- Physical therapy
- Occupational therapy
With so few options available, more and more people are asking whether cannabis and CBD oil could help ataxia. Unfortunately, there is not a vast amount of information available on the subject at present. Here is what we know so far.
Does Cannabis Help Ataxia?
At the time of writing, there are no completed clinical trials on cannabis for ataxia. However, there are case reports that suggest it could provide some benefits.
For example, one patient experienced improvements in symptoms after smoking marijuana. The authors of this case study concluded that cannabis might have “powerful benefits” for ataxia and spasticity.
Another report looked at the effects of oral THC on eight patients with MS, tremor, and ataxia. Two of the patients experienced improved motor coordination after treatment.
It appears that cannabis could potentially help ataxia by influencing the endocannabinoid system (ECS) in the brain.
The ECS is composed of cell receptors called cannabinoid receptors and chemicals called endocannabinoids. They bind together to regulate a wide range of biological functions and maintain homeostasis.
Ataxia and the Endocannabinoid System
Researchers have studied the brains of mice and conducted post-mortem investigations on patients with SCA. The results show that ataxia is associated with increased numbers of cannabinoid receptors in the cerebellum.
It also seems that patients with ataxia have higher-than-average levels of the enzymes that break down endocannabinoids.
Although research is ongoing, it is highly likely that dysfunction in the ECS is involved in the development of ataxia. This is where cannabis therapy comes into play.
Cannabis contains a variety of active chemicals, including cannabinoids like THC and CBD. These molecules interact with receptors in the ECS to produce powerful effects on the body and brain.
However, THC and CBD affect the ECS in very different ways. So, is one more effective than the other for ataxia?
THC or CBD for Ataxia?
The best-studied cannabinoids in cannabis are THC and CBD. THC is responsible for creating the marijuana ‘high’ that many people enjoy. It also has a range of medical uses, including relieving pain, stiffness, and nausea, and stimulating the appetite.
On the other hand, CBD lacks intoxicating effects but possesses many medicinal benefits of its own. It is known to have potent anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and neuroprotective properties.
The difference in these effects is due to the way the two compounds interact with the ECS. THC binds directly to cannabinoid receptors, while CBD affects them indirectly by increasing levels of our natural endocannabinoids.
CBD also acts as a ‘negative allosteric modulator’ at ECS receptors. What this means is that it prevents THC from binding with these receptors as effectively and curbs its adverse side effects. This information is especially relevant regarding the use of THC and CBD for ataxia.
Research published by The Journal of Physiology in 2016 suggests that activating cannabinoid receptors can reduce motor coordination. This is one reason why some people become less coordinated after using marijuana. However, compounds like CBD can counteract overstimulation, and potentially reverse these effects.
Therefore, some scientists have hypothesized that a combination of THC and CBD may work best for ataxia. The THC could act to stimulate the receptors enough to relieve symptoms, while CBD would decrease the likelihood of adverse reactions.
If you live in a state with a medical marijuana program, you should have access to a variety of cannabis strains with a 1:1 THC to CBD ratio. Otherwise, your doctor may prescribe a drug called Sativex. This medicine contains both THC and CBD and is licensed as a treatment for MS.
How to Use CBD Oil for Ataxia
If you do not have access to medical marijuana or Sativex, you may still be able to purchase hemp-derived CBD oil. These products come from industrial hemp and contain less than 0.3% THC. Therefore, they are available in the majority of states.
Although they only have traces of THC, these oils contain many other beneficial cannabinoids, as well as terpenes and flavonoids. However, to benefit from the full range, you need to purchase a full-spectrum oil rather than an isolate.
When purchasing CBD oil for ataxia, it is also essential to choose a reliable brand. The market is not well-regulated, and a lot of companies are getting away with selling substandard products. As a bare minimum, look for a manufacturer that provides third-party lab reports for all of its products.
Regarding how to use CBD oil for ataxia, there are numerous options. The most traditional CBD products are oils or tinctures that patients administer under the tongue. However, this method can be fiddly, especially for people with coordination problems.
Therefore, people with ataxia may prefer other ways of taking CBD, such as capsules, edibles, or vape products. Each of these has pros and cons.
For example, capsules and edibles have to pass through the digestive system. This means that some of their CBD gets lost along the way. However, many consumers say the effects of these products last longer than other consumption methods.
CBD vape products act much more quickly as they do not undergo digestion. However, the effects may be shorter-lived. Furthermore, the long-term health effects of vaping are unknown, and not everyone enjoys this method.
To learn more, check out our related article CBD Therapy: Which Is Best for You?
Do Marijuana and CBD Help Ataxia? Final Thoughts
There is limited evidence that cannabis and CBD help ataxia, but some patients may find them useful. By interacting with the endocannabinoid system, these natural medicines could relieve some symptoms, especially muscle stiffness and movement disorders.
Research is in its infancy, but some scientists are suggesting a combination of THC and CBD may work best. CBD can help to reduce the side effects of THC and should help to prevent any worsening of ataxia symptoms.
However, it is essential to consult a physician before using either CBD oil or marijuana for ataxia. It is also important to conduct in-depth research before making a purchase and ensuring you choose the most appropriate product for you.