What is Epilepsy?
Epilepsy is a common medical condition (affecting roughly 1 in every 103 people and around 600,000 people in the UK alone) that is typically characterised by repeated seizures caused by an excess amount of electrical activity in neurons in the brain.
The seizures experienced in epilepsy fall under two categories – focal and generalised. Focal seizures affect only one specific area of the brain whilst generalised seizures involve much larger areas on both sides of the brain. Other symptoms include fits (bouts of uncontrollable shaking), a loss of awareness, becoming stiff and collapsing. During some forms of seizures however, the person affected may still be alert and may remain aware of their surroundings and the activity going on around them.
Although epilepsy can begin at any age, it most commonly starts in people over the age of 60 or in childhood. It is often a lifelong condition.
Whilst many new antiepileptic medications have become available for use in the past couple of decades, the prognosis of epilepsy has remained largely the same, with around a third of epileptic patients still experiencing drug-resistant seizures.
How can cannabis help?
As discussed in our medical uses module, cannabis’ status as an anticonvulsant has been known for a long time, with consistently growing evidence suggesting this is the case. In particular, cannabidiol or CBD is believed to have better antiepileptic potential than THC, although currently the exact mechanisms of CBD in treating epilepsy are unknown.
Such evidence includes the 2016 Barnes Report, which states that there is a theoretical basis to suggest cannabis has implications for the treatment of epilepsy.
A study carried out following this report on Lennox-Gastaut Syndrome (a highly resistant form of epilepsy) showed that, of the 171 patients who received either cannabidiol or a placebo, those with the cannabidiol experienced a 43.9% drop in their seizure frequency compared to a 22% reduction in the placebo group.
Here, it is important to note that while CBD is certainly an important cannabinoid for the treatment of epilepsy, new evidence suggests that full extract cannabis oils, especially those containing THC may have an even greater effect on seizure reduction.
Another study, in this case a 20 week open label trial of 19 patients with Dravet syndrome, used a full-spectrum treatment containing both CBD and THC and saw the patients experience a seizure reduction of 47% amongst other improvements in the patient’s quality of life.
With such evidence in favour of CBD use for the management of epileptic conditions, it is unsurprising that the FDA (The U.S Food and Drug Administration) has approved of pharmaceutical grade CBD oil for the treatment Lennox-Gastaut Syndrome and Dravet syndrome, two childhood-onset forms of epilepsy. However, such FDA-approved CBD oil is expensive, meaning that many people affected by such conditions may be forced to seek out alternative, unregulated methods of treatment in an attempt to control their seizures.
For more information on this topic, take a look at our evidence base, a ground-breaking systematic review of the history of research in this area and a global first-of-its-kind searchable database for clinical referencing.
The rest of our comprehensive resources on medical cannabis are available on our website. We urge anyone considering the use of medical cannabis products to consult with a trained medical professional prior to beginning use.