Epileptics Turn to Cannabis when Standard Treatments Lose Effect, Australian Survey Shows

Epileptics Turn to Cannabis when Standard Treatments Lose Effect, Australian Survey Shows

About 14 percent of epilepsy patients in Australia say they use cannabis products to manage difficult seizures and are pleased with their effectiveness, according to results of an online nationwide survey.  Almost half of those using these products also reported that treatment allowed them to lower the amount of anti-epileptic medication they were taking.

The findings of the Epilepsy Action Australia survey appeared in Epilepsy & Behaviour in the study, “An Australian nationwide survey on medicinal cannabis use for epilepsy: History of antiepileptic drug treatment predicts medicinal cannabis use.”

In total, 90 percent of adults and 71 percent of parents of an epileptic child reported successfully managing difficult-to-treat seizures after treating them with cannabis products.

Pollsters conducted the 39-question survey in partnership with the University of Sydney’s Lambert Initiative, which focuses on medicinal cannabinoids. Researchers polled 976 people and examined both the reasons behind cannabis extract use and their perceived benefits. Overall, they found that 15 percent of adults with epilepsy and 13 percent of children with the disease had used cannabis products to treatment seizures and symptoms.

The two most important reasons cited by all respondents for trying cannabis products were managing symptoms that resisted treatment, and reducing the side effects of anti-epileptic drugs. Just “under half” reported lowering their reliance on traditional medication after starting cannabis, the survey found — a finding that worried researchers somewhat, because the change seemed to be a patient decision undertaken without a doctor’s advice.

Epileptics who had tried a larger number of anti-epileptic medications, apparently without finding one that best met their needs, were also more willing to try cannabis.

“Given that the likelihood of ‘sustained’ seizure-freedom decreases and side effects tend to increase with each new combination of AEDs (anti-epileptic drugs), it is reasonable that people with epilepsy, particularly those whose seizures are treatment-resistant, are pursuing alternative treatments to manage seizures,” the researchers said. Still, “it is concerning if this medication change is undertaken without close medical supervision.”

Safety concerns — specifically “uncertainty” about the short- and long-term effects of cannabis — and problems with access were the leading reasons given for patients choosing not to use such products.

“This survey provides insight into the use of cannabis products for epilepsy, in particular some of the likely factors influencing use, as well as novel insights into the experiences of and attitudes towards medicinal cannabis in people with epilepsy in the Australian community,” Anastasia Suraev, lead author and a member of the Lambert Initiative, said in a press release.

“Despite the limitations of a retrospective online survey, we cannot ignore that a significant proportion of adults and children with epilepsy are using cannabis-based products in Australia, and many are self-reporting considerable benefits to their condition,” said Suraev. “More systematic clinical studies are urgently needed to help us better understand the role of cannabinoids in epilepsy.”

Added study co-author Carol Ireland, CEO of Epilepsy Action Australia: “Cannabis products are often what people turn to when they have been unable to control their epilepsy with conventional medication. This highlights a growing need to educate consumers and health professionals on the use of cannabis by people with epilepsy, and to provide safe and timely access to cannabinoid medicine in order to lessen people’s reliance on illicit black market products.”

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