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medical marijuana for psoriatic arthritis

Does Medical Marijuana Work for Psoriatic Arthritis?

Before she began using medical marijuana, Cynthia Covert, a writer based in California and the woman behind the Disabled Diva blog, was what she describes as a “chronic corpse.”

Plagued with psoriatic arthritis and fibromyalgia, Covert was confined to a wheelchair.

“Up until that point, I was treated with pharmaceuticals,” she says. “The doctors were always happy to give me all of the pills I wanted.” She used opioids and muscle relaxers for pain, valium to help her sleep, and, for a spell, biologics to treat her psoriatic arthritis. The biologics worsened her nerve pain associated with fibromyalgia.

“Over the course of twelve years, I never got better. I felt I had a choice: end my life or try something wacky and out-there,” she says.

A new approach

In 2013, a friend with cancer suggested Covert try medical marijuana to alleviate her arthritis and fibromyalgia symptoms. Covert registered for a medical marijuana card in California, one of 29 states where medical marijuana laws have been enacted. She began taking pot, in edible form, before bed.

“I was terrified the first time I entered a dispensary,” Covert says. “It was so bizarre, especially for a middle-aged woman.”

Within three weeks, Covert regained use of her left thumb and pointer finger, two digits that had been severely inflamed with arthritis. In five years, Covert went from using a wheelchair full-time to using it about 20 percent of the time.

Additionally, the most persistent patches of psoriasis along Covert’s spine had faded and completely disappeared. When a psoriasis patch erupted on her scalp during a period of great stress, Covert treated it with cannabidiol (CBD) cream, available at her local medical marijuana dispensary.(CBD is one type of cannabinoid, containing a chemical compound found in cannabis that’s also produced naturally in the human body.)

“It took three weeks to clear up, which is longer than pharmaceuticals took, but unlike before, it hasn’t come back,” she says.

Covert says the disappearance of the psoriasis from her skin was a welcome side effect–one that she didn’t notice right away. For her, psoriasis was an annoyance compared with her arthritis-related mobility issues.

While psoriasis is not a qualifying condition in states with medical marijuana programs, arthritis patients—including those with psoriatic arthritis—can apply. A 2012 report out of California found that 92 percent of medical marijuana patients, including those who use it to treat chronic pain and arthritis, attest that it alleviates their symptoms.

Hoping for approval

The FDA, however, has not approved marijuana as a safe and effective treatment for any condition. Marijuana is a Schedule I drug, a Drug Enforcement Agency categorization for substances with a high potential for abuse.

But in 2016, President Barack Obama removed a major roadblock to marijuana research. Since then, institutions across the country have initiated clinical trials testing the drug’s efficacy, with researchers in California, Philadelphia, Arizona, Colorado, New York, Maryland, Utah, and other states studying its viability for patients with chronic pain. Research on marijuana is ongoing.

“The dispensary is a one-stop shop for me,” Covert says. “It’s where I get my arthritis med, my psoriasis med, my anxiety med, my muscle relaxer, and my sleep med.”

The only downside of medical marijuana, Covert says, is the rift it’s created between her and her doctors, who she says do not object to medical marijuana, but will not track her progress.

“I really want them to be tracking my condition,” she says. “It cracks me up that for twelve years they were documenting everything that didn’t work but they don’t record what does.”

Psoriatic arthritis and fibromyalgia had Cynthia Covert confined to a wheelchair, and nothing she tried offered any relief the pain—until she starting using medical marijuana.

Is Cannabis an Effective Treatment for Psoriasis?

Cannabis, or marijuana, is now being used to treat pain and conditions such as Crohn’s disease, glaucoma, and nausea from chemotherapy. The evidence is mounting that cannabis may also be effective in treating everything from multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease to schizophrenia and post-traumatic stress disorder. But can cannabis be used to treat psoriasis?

Psoriasis is a chronic autoimmune disorder that causes the rapid build-up of skin cells. The new skin cells are produced so quickly that they reach the surface of the skin before they’re mature. This immature buildup on the surface of the skin forms itchy, raised patches of silvery scales. Parts of your body may also become inflamed, and you may have redness, swelling, and discomfort.

About 15 percent of people who have psoriasis will develop psoriatic arthritis. This condition causes painful swelling and stiffness of the joints. If left untreated, it can also lead to permanent joint damage.

Pain, fatigue, and sleeplessness often occur with psoriasis. Psoriasis can also take a profound toll on your mental health.

The National Psoriasis Foundation notes that people with psoriasis are at an increased risk for depression, anxiety, and suicide. A 2010 study published in the Archives of Dermatology found that people living with psoriasis have a 39 percent higher risk of being diagnosed with depression than those without the disease. They also have a 31 percent higher risk of being diagnosed with anxiety.

Psoriasis isn’t curable and can be difficult to control. Although there are a variety of medications and light therapies for treating the disease, some have serious side effects and others lose their effectiveness when your body builds up a resistance to them.

Given the physical and emotional burden of psoriasis, new treatment options are needed. Cannabis is one of the treatment possibilities being explored. Research into the effectiveness of cannabis addresses different aspects of the disease.

Slowing cell growth

Some studies suggest cannabis may be useful in slowing the rapid growth of keratinocytes. These are the immature skin cells found in people with psoriasis. One study suggests that cannabinoids and their receptors may help control and limit the production of immature skin cells. Researchers add that cannabis may be useful in treating several conditions involving keratinocytes, including psoriasis and wound healing.

Controlling pain

Many people use marijuana to control pain. Cannabis may be more effective than opioids in controlling acute and neuropathic pain. It may also be useful in reducing chronic pain, according to an article in Current Rheumatology . An article published in the Journal of the American Medical Association also suggests that marijuana may be effective in treating pain.

Regulating the immune system

Although more research is needed, some studies indicate that cannabis reduces the severity of inflammation associated with some conditions, including autoimmune disorders like psoriasis. An article published in the journal Pharmacology indicates that cannabis can suppress the immune system.

Most research has focused on forms of cannabis that are taken by mouth. Cannabis is also available as oil. Some people use this oil topically to treat psoriasis, claiming that it controls the speed of skin cell production and reduces inflammation. More research is needed to support these claims.

Treatment of stress

Psoriasis and stress go hand in hand, and THC has been shown to relieve stress. However, researchers note that while low doses of THC can produce stress-relieving effects, higher doses may actually have a negative effect on mood.

Cannabinoids hold the key

Cannabinoids are active chemicals found in marijuana plants. Your body makes cannabinoids, too. These chemical messengers are called “endocannabinoids.” They play a role in some functions in your body, including:

  • inflammation
  • immunity
  • appetite
  • the pressure in your eye
  • mood
  • reproduction

Cannabis holds promise for treating the symptoms of psoriasis. It’s well-established that cannabis can be useful in controlling pain. More research is needed to determine if it’s safe and effective, though. The manner in which cannabis is used also needs more testing. Cannabis can be used in a variety of forms, including:

  • pills
  • inhalants
  • vaporizers
  • tinctures

Cannabis hasn’t been better studied because it’s a Schedule I substance under the United States Controlled Substances Act. Schedule I substances are considered to have a high potential for abuse, have no accepted medical use, and may not be safe for use under medical supervision.

These restrictions have posed a significant obstacle to cannabis research. Still, state laws allowing the use of medical marijuana have encouraged more research and efforts to deregulate the drug.

Cannabis is being increasingly used to treat a number of conditions and their symptoms. But how does it shape up as a potential treatment for psoriasis?