Epilepsy is a persistent (chronic) condition of the brain. It involves unpredictable abnormal electrical discharges or misfirings of brain cells (neurons).
This misfiring in the brain can cause episodes of bodily convulsions, loss of coordination, loss of consciousness or altered sensory states. These episodes are commonly called seizures. People with epilepsy have persistent and recurring seizures. One may be born with epilepsy, or may acquire it as a result of disease or injury.
Epileptic seizures are often classified as partial seizures or generalized seizures. Partial seizures are more common and start in an isolated part of the brain. Partial seizures can be described as either simple or complex. When a simple partial seizure occurs, a person retains consciousness. The person with epilepsy may experience uncontrollable twitching or stiffening in a limb. There may be a tingling sensation, a change in consciousness or an odd smell without a source. The subjective sensations that may warn of an impending event are called an “aura”.
Complex partial seizures cause an impairment of consciousness. During this type of seizure, a person may act confused, aimless, fidgety, emotional or disturbed. They are likely to have no memory of the event after it is over. A simple partial seizure may progress to a complex partial seizure and then become a generalized seizure as the abnormal electrical discharge spreads to the entire brain.
Generalized seizures involve abnormal discharges or misfirings in all regions of the brain and result in impairment of consciousness. Behavior during generalized seizures may range from a blank stare with little or no movement (petit mal or “absence” seizures) to dramatic bodily convulsions (grand mal seizures). During these convulsions, the patient may have difficulty breathing and turn blue. They may also bite their tongue and may lose control of urine or stool. When they regain consciousness, they do not remember the event and are very sleepy.
Epilepsy is conventionally treated with a class of drugs called anticonvulsants. Doctors prescribe anticonvulsants or antiepileptic drugs according to the types of seizures patients experience and how well the patient can tolerate the drug. Many patients have a poor response to these drugs even when taken in combination.
In addition to problems with effectiveness, there can be serious side effects resulting from the use of anticonvulsants. While these side effects do not always occur, they can include nausea, headaches, loss of hair, swelling of gum tissue, impotence, depression, poor coordination (ataxia), liver failure, depressed blood counts and even psychosis.
Some people with grand mal seizures say they can prevent their seizures entirely by smoking marihuana. Others, who suffer complex partial seizures, report that marihuana also curbs their symptoms and prevents loss of consciousness. Marihuana is not considered useful for treating petit mal or absence seizures and may even worsen them.
Some patients find that marihuana works in conjunction with other drugs they are taking. Others find that marihuana works best for them when it is used without other drugs. Either way, these epileptic patients have made marihuana a necessary part of their medical treatment.
People using marihuana to control epilepsy should be aware that withdrawal from any medication that controls seizures may leave you more susceptible to the seizures. Marihuana is no exception. Patients with epilepsy are advised to exercise caution when using oral THC because there is not sufficient knowledge about the convulsive or anti-convulsive properties of the single compound.