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By: Emily Earlenbaugh
PTSD, or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, is a debilitating and life altering condition that can occur after a traumatic incident. Those who suffer from it are in some ways trapped to relive their trauma over and over again through flashbacks and nightmares, causing panic attacks, hypervigilance, overwhelming emotions, detachment from loved ones and sometimes even self-destructive behavior. Sadly, PTSD is not an easy condition to treat or to live with. Still, some PTSD sufferers say they’ve found relief from their intense symptoms through a controversial treatment – medical cannabis.
Despite the reports from PTSD patients that cannabis helps with their PTSD, and research showing the mechanisms behind how cannabis might help with PTSD, the question of whether it really does help has remained a matter of controversy. No clinical studies have been completed on the topic, and the minimal research observing humans actually using cannabis for PTSD has been somewhat contradictory, with some studies suggesting cannabis shows promise and others suggesting it has no benefits for the condition.
But a new study is adding to the evidence that cannabis could help those suffering with PTSD. The researchers found that PTSD sufferers who used cannabis not only saw greater reductions in their PTSD symptoms, but they were 2.57 times more likely to recover from PTSD during the study than those who weren’t using cannabis.
The study was funded by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and carried out by researchers at a number of universities including The University of Pennsylvania, The University of California San Diego, Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and The University of Colorado. The authors of the study explain that given the increasing use of cannabis for PTSD, especially in states where it is legal (like Colorado) it’s important to understand whether it is actually able to offer improvements for PTSD patients.
Unfortunately, the limited research available makes this question difficult to answer. Clinical research would be ideal to answer these questions, but this is difficult to accomplish in the US. In clinical studies, researchers provide the cannabis, along with placebos to the participants, so that they can know the exact substances being ingested and use a double blind procedure to prevent bias from influencing the results.
Sadly, legal restrictions currently prevent researchers from giving research subjects cannabis – unless it is obtained from the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA). Unfortunately the type of cannabis available through NIDA is quite different in terms of potency, product types and a variety of other factors, from the cannabis that is available in legal cannabis markets. These restrictions may loosen soon, as there are multiple bills making their way through Congress that would drop this restriction. Still, until these restrictions change, researchers interested in learning how the cannabis that consumers are actually using impacts PTSD need to use observational studies. In these studies – like the one recently conducted – researchers observe the outcomes from those using cannabis from the legal cannabis market to treat their PTSD.
In this study, researchers followed two groups of PTSD patients throughout a year-long period. One group was using legal medical cannabis, while the other group was not using cannabis at all. Each group included 75 participants who met the DSM Criteria for PTSD. At the beginning of the study, and every three months throughout the year they were studied, participants were assessed for PTSD and for the symptom severity they were experiencing with the various symptoms of PTSD. Cannabis use (or lack thereof) was also confirmed by urine toxicology tests.
The results supported what cannabis using PTSD sufferers have been saying for a long time. Those who used cannabis saw reduced symptom severity, and while the control group also saw some reductions over time, those who used cannabis saw a significantly more rapid reduction of symptoms. At the end of the study, they had much lower levels of symptom severity than those who didn’t use cannabis.
But beyond mere symptom reduction, the study also found that those using cannabis were more than 2.5 times more likely to no longer have PTSD after the year long study. This suggests that cannabis may do more than just dampen symptoms, it could actually facilitate healing from the trauma that caused PTSD, something that has been suggested by scientists studying how cannabis impacts the brain, memory and stress response.
Interestingly, most of the patients using cannabis used high THC cannabis flower. Since they saw such positive results, this suggests future studies should look specifically at this type of cannabis regimen. The researchers recommend that future clinical studies should be done using the types of cannabis that PTSD patients are actually using. Hopefully restrictions on cannabis research will loosen soon, so these important questions can be investigated with the best scientific tools we have at our disposal.
I am a writer and educator focused on bringing scientifically backed education on cannabis and wellness to the public. I’ve spent the last decade working in and covering the cannabis space, and utilize my PhD in the Philosophy of Science to delve deeply into the science of cannabis, disambiguating real research from misinformation. In my spare time, I educate cannabis users on how to find options that work for them, and teach mindfulness-based skills for wellness. You can follow me and my writing at instagram.com/emilyearlenbaugh.
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