Stress and anxiety have become two of the most prevalent sources of illness in modern society. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America concluded that anxiety disorders are the number-one most common category of mood disorder in the country, and the National Institute of Mental Health estimates that at least 40 million Americans, nearly one in five, struggle with anxiety.
Statistics and Symptoms of PTSD
At the same time, the number of diagnoses for PTSD, or post-traumatic stress disorder, have been steadily increasing. PTSD is a stress and anxiety condition resulting from exposure to extreme trauma or the trauma of a loved one.
The U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs estimates that 31.3 million Americans, 20 percent of the population, will experience PTSD symptoms at some point in their lives. These symptoms include "being bombarded by intrusive thoughts; avoiding people, places, and things; and experiencing hyper awareness."
Other common symptoms of PTSD are persistent nightmares with accompanying insomnia, unexpected triggers for re-experiencing the trauma, flashbacks, adrenaline and hormone surges, extreme risk-taking behavior and suicidal depression.
The Cost of Mistreatment
Although PTSD has been most often associated with soldiers returning from war and survivors of rape attacks, the number of PTSD cases has expanded as physicians have realized that other kinds of extreme trauma can induce the same pathology.
Sandro Galea, an epidemiologist and chairman at the National Academy of Sciences, stated starkly, "We are at the cusp of a wave of PTSD," due to the ongoing nature of foreign wars along with failures in current therapy options for PTSD sufferers. By some estimates, misdiagnosis and mistreatment of PTSD has cost over $42.3 billion. One treatment that is gaining greater acceptance now is the medicinal application of cannabis.
New Mexico as a Testing Ground
New Mexico became the first U.S. state to authorize medical cannabis as a treatment for PTSD in 2009 after many years of effective but unauthorized use, especially by discharged soldiers. A study of the program's successful outcomes, titled "PTSD Symptom Reports of Patients Evaluated for the New Mexico Medical Cannabis Program," was published in the Journal of Psychoactive Drugs in 2014. It was then presented to the New Mexico Legislative Health & Human Services Committee to clear up questions about medical marijuana as a treatment option.
The study found that patients reported that cannabis use resulted in a 75 percent reduction on average in the three major categories of PTSD symptoms: re-experiencing, avoidance and hyper-arousal. The report also specified that there was a "lack of any harm or problems in functioning" as a result of cannabis use by the patients.
How Different Strains Affect Various Symptoms
CBD and THC are the best studied of the cannabinoids, which also include CBG, CBC, CBN and CBDL. Strains with higher CBD have been shown to be more effective at treating anxiety-related symptoms while THC strains simulate the body's natural mechanism for blocking out harmful memories.
The University of Buffalo reported in the Journal of Neuroscience that its study on endocannabinoids demonstrated the role that these chemicals play in counteracting chronic stress and regulating hyper-arousal. Endocannabinoids operate on the same system of receptors as marijuana cannabinoids like THC, suggesting that strains higher in THC should be considered when these kinds of symptoms present more strongly in the patient.
PTSD and Cannabinoids in the Real World
Jack Stiegelman, a veteran of an Afghanistan deployment who founded Vets For Cannabis after a back injury, reported immediate results from a strain that treated pain and stress relief. He said, "The rage wasn't there anymore. It helped with the stabbing pains and relaxed my back spasms, and it helped me think clearly and stay in tune with my body ... I took medical marijuana to stop some of the effects of the other medications."
That same reason is behind why psychiatrist Sue Sisley has led a national campaign for greater research into medical marijuana and how it could help vets fighting suicidal depression. She pointed out, "We do have an epidemic of veteran suicide in this country. The question is, is the epidemic related to untreated or underdiagnosed PTSD, and could marijuana help deal with that epidemic?" She also pointed out that medical marijuana is a more practical, less potentially dangerous solution because it eliminates the likelihood of unknown drug interactions.
Sisley summed up her argument for cannabis-based treatments, "PTSD has such a broad constellation of symptoms, and you can end up taking eight, 10 medicines to manage a single syndrome. This plant enabled them to walk away from all of these drugs."
New Vistas for Medical Marijuana Research
A great deal of research is underway across the country as 23 states and the District of Columbia have approved medical marijuana for treatment of illnesses like PTSD and anxiety-related mood disorders. In 2016, five more states will be deciding whether to allow medical marijuana for these kinds of treatments. Public opinion is opening up, but now additional scientific research needs to follow to make sure patients are receiving the right form of treatment. Today, it requires the careful evaluation by a medical professional to determine which strain is most effective in each individual case. Consult a healthcare professional for more information about this complex and rapidly changing field of research.