Cannabis continues to make headlines for each new disease researchers believe it can treat. Most recently, it seems that marijuana might be beneficial in the management of neurodegenerative diseases, like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and multiple sclerosis, and a significant amount of funding is currently being devoted to better understanding how cannabinoids interfere with chronic pain.
However, one health condition that appears on every list of qualifying conditions for medical marijuana is glaucoma — but the effectiveness of cannabis treatment of glaucoma rarely makes the news. Why is glaucoma a common condition for marijuana medicine, and do sufferers who use marijuana actually experience relief?
What Glaucoma Is
Those who regularly visit the eye doctor are likely familiar with a test where a small puff of air is administered on each eye. Slightly uncomfortable but not the worst test at an eye appointment, this test is called tonometry; the puff of air acts as pressure against the outside of the eye, so a machine can measure the eye’s inner pressure. Ultimately, this test helps the doctor determine whether their patient is at risk for glaucoma.
Glaucoma is a disease that causes fluid to build up within the eye, increasing the inner pressure of the eye and damaging the optic nerve. There are two types of glaucoma: open-angle and angle-closure. The former is a long-term disease where the eye is less efficient at draining its fluid; over time, pressure will increase, and symptoms will worsen. The latter is acute, a true eye emergency that requires immediate intervention or else the sufferer could quickly lose their vision.
If left untreated, glaucoma does eventually cause problems with vision and ultimately blindness. The symptoms of glaucoma include severe pain, particularly eye pain but also headaches and sinus pressure, as well as intense nausea. Some glaucoma sufferers note that their vision is suddenly blurry, or they might see halos or rainbow-colored rings around lights. For those with a chronic glaucoma issue, symptoms often develop slowly, worsening as the disease causes greater damage to the optic nerve.
What Cannabis Does
There are many compounds within cannabis that have effects on the human body, but the most well-known and best-researched compound by far is tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC. This compound, called a cannabinoid for it is found only within the cannabis plant, is primarily responsible for marijuana’s psychoactive effects; THC binds to receptors within the body’s endocannabinoid system, causing all manner of psychological and physical reactions that make users feel high.
However, THC also has medicinal effects. Of particular importance to glaucoma sufferers, THC is known to lower eye pressure, alleviating compression of the optic nerve and providing relief. What’s more, THC binds to receptors within the digestive system, alleviating feelings of nausea, and its psychoactive effects can distract from feelings of pain.
Admittedly, THC isn’t the only treatment option for glaucoma sufferers. In fact, some glaucoma specialists do not advocate for relying solely on cannabis for glaucoma treatment because the drug only relieves pressure for three to four hours, whereas patients need help managing their eye pressure all 24 hours of the day. Utilizing only THC to keep glaucoma in check would require ingesting 18 to20 milligrams of THC between six and eight times per day, every day, which could have a variety of negative effects on a person’s productivity, mood or long-term health.
Sufferers who believe they are suffering from glaucoma should avoid the temptation to self-medicate and consult with a knowledgeable eye doctor, who can provide a treatment plan that includes both reliable glaucoma medication and cannabis products. Then, sufferers can find the right weed products from California medical dispensaries and avoid continuing to damage their optic nerves.
That THC has such an effect on the pressure of the inner eye demonstrates that cannabinoids might be able to provide much more to the medical community. Despite the fact that glaucoma should not be managed with cannabis alone, that sufferers can find relief with THC is a testament to the healing properties of weed and its potential as a life-saving drug. With more funding devoted to researching how THC and other cannabinoids affect the human body, science could provide new and exciting cannabis-based treatments in the years to come.