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Marijuana Use With Parkinson’s: Helpful or Harmful?

Medically reviewed by Kelsey Stalvey, PharmD
Written by Maureen McNulty
Posted on August 25, 2023

As marijuana use becomes more common in the United States, many people with chronic medical conditions such as Parkinson’s disease wonder whether this substance will prove helpful or harmful.

“Have any of you tried marijuana to alleviate Parkinson’s symptoms?” asked one member of MyParkinsonsTeam. “I have never smoked in my life, much less marijuana.”

Many MyParkinsonsTeam members have said that they’ve used marijuana — or cannabis — products. One U.S.-based survey of people with Parkinson’s disease, published in NPJ Parkinson’s Disease, found that about 1 out of 4 respondents had tried cannabis within the past six months. However, another survey, published in Movement Disorders Clinical Practice, reported that 73 percent of those with the condition had tried some type of cannabis product for medicinal purposes.

Ultimately, researchers are still in the process of learning more about marijuana and its effects on those with Parkinson’s. Some evidence shows that it can lessen symptoms and improve quality of life for people with this movement disorder. Other research, however, has found that marijuana may not help or that the risks may not be worth the benefits for some people.

Read on to learn more about how marijuana may affect you if you use it while living with Parkinson’s disease.

THC, CBD, Cannabis — What’s the Difference?

To better understand how marijuana might affect you, it helps to know some of the common terms you might see on product labels or hear in conversations.

Marijuana comes from the cannabis plant. This plant contains more than 100 cannabinoids — chemicals that can interact with proteins found in your cells. There are two main types of cannabinoids:

  • Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is the substance that affects your mental functions. THC is what makes you feel high when you use marijuana.
  • Cannabidiol (CBD) is a substance that may have effects throughout your body but won’t cause a high.

Technically, the term “cannabis” includes all products that come from the cannabis plant, while “marijuana” specifically refers to cannabis products that contain THC and are capable of getting you high. You can buy many types of products, including:

  • “Flower” or “bud” — Leafy buds that are smoked
  • Tinctures — Oils that are sprayed or dropped under your tongue
  • Vape pens — E-cigarettes that produce vapor from marijuana flower, oil, or concentrates
  • Edibles — Foods and beverages infused with cannabis extract, such as candy, baked goods, juices, and teas

CBD derived from hemp — Cannabis sativa with no more than 0.3 percent THC — is effectively legal at the federal level, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). However, it’s outlawed in some states. On the other hand, there are federal laws that prohibit marijuana, but many states have legalized it. As of April 2023, 38 states, three U.S. territories, and Washington, D.C. allow for medical cannabis or medical marijuana. In these areas, you can use marijuana for specific medical purposes if you have permission from a doctor. Additionally, as of June 2023, 23 states, two territories, and Washington, D.C. permit recreational use — any adult can use marijuana for any purpose, including nonmedical uses.

How Marijuana May Help With Parkinson’s

Because there hasn’t been a lot of research in this area, health experts don’t yet have a good understanding of the possible benefits of cannabis for Parkinson’s disease.

Some smaller studies and surveys have reported that, for people with Parkinson’s, marijuana may lead to fewer tremors and less levodopa-induced dyskinesia (LID) — uncontrollable movements caused by levodopa treatment. However, multiple clinical studies have found the opposite results — they reported no differences in motor symptoms between those who used marijuana and those who didn’t. Additional research is needed to better understand whether marijuana is effective at treating symptoms like tremors.

Other studies have found that marijuana may help with nonmotor symptoms of Parkinson’s, including mental health. It may help boost mood, improve memory, and reduce fatigue. According to the Nature survey, the most common reasons that people with Parkinson’s disease use marijuana include managing chronic pain, anxiety, and sleeping difficulties.

Many MyParkinsonsTeam members have found marijuana helpful in managing their condition. “I’ve had nothing but success with it,” commented one member. “I usually use it for sleep and for my pain management.”

Another shared, “It helps me a lot with anxiety and appetite, as nothing tastes good to me now.”

One person found that liquid drops helped with motor symptoms: “I gave a dinner party one night and was exhausted so my tremors were pretty bad. I put two good drops in my mouth and my tremors began to decrease and within 20 minutes they were totally gone. It also helps calm my nerves when I am feeling overwhelmed.”

However, marijuana doesn’t help everyone. Nearly 1 out of 4 respondents in the Nature survey said they’d tried marijuana and then stopped using it. The most common reason for stopping was that they didn’t think it helped their symptoms.

One MyParkinsonsTeam member wrote, “I tried medical marijuana, but the strains I have tried have not relieved the pain.”

Another member who tried a variety of marijuana-based products also found them unhelpful. “For the last 10 days, I have been using marijuana. So far, nothing works,” they commented. “I will try another week until I give up.”

Will marijuana help treat your symptoms? Talk to your health care team to learn more, or consider trying medical or recreational marijuana if it is legal in your area.

Potential Negative Effects of Cannabis or Marijuana

While marijuana can be helpful for many, it may also come with drawbacks. You may want to discuss these issues with your doctor before you try using marijuana products.

Marijuana Side Effects

In general, marijuana can lead to several short-term side effects, including:

  • Lightheadedness
  • Dry mouth
  • Dry eyes
  • Headaches
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Fast heart rate
  • High blood pressure
  • Increased appetite
  • Trouble remembering, focusing, or making decisions

In the Movement Disorders Clinical Practice survey, the most common side effects reported by respondents who’d used products containing THC, CBD, and/or a mix included:

  • Dry mouth
  • Dizziness or balance problems
  • Cognitive impairment (thinking difficulties)
  • Weight gain
  • Tiredness
  • Heart palpitations (irregular heartbeats)

For some people, these side effects are nonexistent or mild. One MyParkinsonsTeam member, who said they’d been using marijuana for five months, commented, “The side effects are minimal for me. My mouth gets dry and I get real hungry.”

Another member mentioned that while marijuana lessened their pain and anxiety, it affected their balance. However, they didn’t think this was a major problem: “I’m not running any races, so I can live with the slight imbalance issue. I just have to focus a little more when I walk,” they shared.

Other people reported more serious issues with marijuana use. “I tried medical marijuana, and it sent me a little crazy!” said one member. “I ran around the kitchen table for two hours (no joke) after drinking eight bottles of water!”

Marijuana side effects could also make your Parkinson’s worse. For example, marijuana can cause hallucinations, so you may want to avoid this substance if you already experience hallucinations as a symptom of Parkinson’s disease.

Other Considerations

Although many states have legalized marijuana, it is still illegal at the federal level, which means that most insurance companies won’t pay for treatments, even if you qualify for medical marijuana.

One MyParkinsonsTeam member whose husband uses marijuana for Parkinson’s shared their experience with the financial aspect: “Granted, insurance won’t touch it, and affording the capsules isn’t for the weak of heart, but let me reassure you, if the time comes when pain is overwhelming, it’s an excellent resource,” they said.

It’s also important to understand that you can become dependent on marijuana, particularly if you use it long term. You may have a hard time going without this substance or experience withdrawal symptoms if you try to quit. Talk to your doctor for help weighing the benefits and risks of using cannabis products for Parkinson’s disease.

Get Support From Your Team

MyParkinsonsTeam is the social network for people with Parkinson’s disease and their loved ones. On MyParkinsonsTeam, more than 98,000 members come together to ask questions, give advice, and share their stories with others who understand life with this condition.

Have you used marijuana while living with Parkinson’s disease? Share your experience in the comments below, or start a conversation by posting to your Activities page.

    Posted on August 25, 2023
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    Kelsey Stalvey, PharmD received her Doctor of Pharmacy from Pacific University School of Pharmacy in Portland, Oregon, and went on to complete a one-year postgraduate residency at Sarasota Memorial Hospital in Sarasota, Florida. Learn more about her here.
    Maureen McNulty studied molecular genetics and English at Ohio State University. Learn more about her here.
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