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Medical Marijuana for Restless Leg Syndrome

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What does the science say about medical marijuana and RLS? If you have restless legs syndrome, marijuana may help your twitches, insomnia, pain, and more.

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What does the science say about medical marijuana and RLS?

Can you treat the symptoms of restless legs syndrome with marijuana?

Restless legs syndrome is a nervous system disorder characterized by the constant urge to move your legs.

But RLS also falls under the category of sleep disorders because it also affects how fast you fall asleep and how well you sleep through the night.

Treatment options to relieve RLS symptoms must therefore address both branches to help patients improve their quality of life.

Since medical marijuana is now being used to treat a variety of health issues and diseases such as cancer, epilepsy, Parkinson’s disease, and fibromyalgia, let’s see what the research says about marijuana and RLS.

What the Studies Show About Using Medical Marijuana for Restless Legs Syndrome Treatment

Cannabinoids like THC and CBD found in marijuana activate your body’s own cannabinoid receptors.

Your endocannabinoid receptors are found throughout your body and brain and are responsible for everything from your appetite to how you perceive pain to your mood.

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Not much research exists on medical marijuana and RLS specifically.

But with more states legalizing medical and recreational marijuana, evidence from other studies examining its effects on sleep, uncontrolled movements, and other overlapping RLS issues suggests it may be beneficial for patients.


MEDICAL EVIDENCE IN SUPPORT OF USING MEDICAL MARIJUANA TO TREAT RESTLESS LEGS SYNDROME 

Generally, patients with RLS need help finding relief for three big symptoms:

#1. Uncontrollable muscle spasticity. Patients with restless legs syndrome often report tingling sensations in their leg muscles which force them to shake and rub their legs or move around.

Some scientists believe these uncontrollable sensations may be due to a dopamine imbalance, which is what many think causes tremors in Parkinson’s disease too.

Researchers in one study examining marijuana and Parkinson’s disease discovered the cannabinoids in marijuana help regulate the release of dopamine to provide relief from muscle spasms [1].

If RLS is in fact linked to dopamine irregularities, marijuana may be able to return these levels back to normal and reduce tremors and “jimmy legs”.

#2. Pain management. Those who suffer from RLS frequently report uncomfortable, painful sensations in their legs, calves, and feet.
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When researchers examined 18 controlled trials on medical marijuana, they learned 80% of participants experienced less chronic, non-cancer pain after inhalation and many even improved their sleep [2].

In another study, adults with neuropathic pain were randomly given cannabis doses at 0%, 2.5%, 6%, and 9.4% THC concentrations for two weeks.

Scientists learned one inhalation of 25mg of 9.4% THC three times a day provided the most pain relief and not only improved sleep but helped participants fall asleep faster [3].

These two studies unintentionally highlight a byproduct of medical marijuana use: sleepiness.

#3. Insomnia and poor sleep. RLS symptoms tend to get worse after prolonged periods of resting. This means it’s especially hard for someone with RLS to fall asleep or stay asleep through the night.

While very frustrating, a lack of quality sleep is dangerous and unhealthy as it’s been associated with higher chances of developing [4][5][6][7]:

  • Obesity

  • Type 2 diabetes

  • Heart disease

  • Anxiety and depression

  • A weakened immune system

  • Lower sex drive

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Unlike traditional sleeping pills, which alter the way your brain works and can be addictive, medical marijuana reduces symptoms which interfere with sleep, such as anxiety and pain.

CBD has been shown to lower stress and anxiety to help you feel drowsy and sleepy while THC may increase deep sleep time to help you feel better rested [8].

One study specifically researching marijuana and RLS patients showed very promising results despite being so small.

After inhaling marijuana, five of the six RLS participants experienced complete remission of their symptoms -- and all six reported better sleep [9].

But are there any downsides?


MEDICAL EVIDENCE AGAINST USING MEDICAL MARIJUANA TO TREAT RESTLESS LEGS SYNDROME

Again, since there are so few studies testing medical marijuana and RLS, there aren’t many to cite negative responses.

However, patients with RLS using medical marijuana may experience:

  • Side effects such as dry mouth, memory loss, and fatigue.
  • Anxiety, depending on the strain and dosage amount.
  • Edible consumption isn’t as effective as inhalation of medical marijuana.
  • Daytime drowsiness and trouble concentrating, which may not be an issue if used before bed.
  • Quick, but not long lasting effects. Inhaling marijuana may provide relief of RLS symptoms in a few minutes, but it may only last one to two hours.

Restless Legs Syndrome Overview

Restless legs syndrome affects 7–10% of Americans according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke [10].

Also known as Willis-Ekbom Disease, RLS symptoms can appear at any age and once diagnosed your condition may worsen as you get older.

Even though both men and women can have restless legs syndrome, women are twice as likely to have RLS.

Doctors aren't sure what causes restless legs syndrome, but they do suspect genetics have a role to play because almost 50% of patients with RLS also have a family member with RLS.

Common symptoms of RLS include:

  • Discomfort or pain in your legs, calves, and feet

  • A tingling, itching, or “pins and needles” sensation deep inside your legs

  • Involuntary movements or leg jerks while you’re resting or sleeping

  • Compulsion or urge to move your legs

  • Restlessness like pacing, tossing and turning in bed, unconsciously rubbing your legs, etc.

  • Trouble falling or staying asleep

  • Feeling sleepy during the day

Many suffering from RLS say these symptoms intensify as the day goes on and get unbearable at night when they’re trying to relax and fall asleep.

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If you suspect you may have restless legs syndrome, your doctor will need to run some tests to find out if an underlying medical condition may be to blame.

Certain factors can lead to developing RLS or worsening symptoms if you have it, such as:

  • An iron deficiency

  • Pregnancy (though RLS usually goes away after delivery)

  • Chronic medical conditions such as kidney disease, diabetes, Lyme disease, fibromyalgia, rheumatoid arthritis, hyper/hypothyroidism, or Parkinson’s disease.

  • Certain medications like anti-nausea and antipsychotic drugs, antidepressants, and cold and allergy medications with antihistamines.

While patients say they’re able to reduce their symptoms when they move around more, others require more help.

Typical Restless Leg Syndrome Treatment Options

Nonmedicinal, therapeutic relief for RLS often includes:

  • Alternating hot and cold massage on the affected muscles.

  • Regular exercise such as walking, stretching, and yoga -- especially before bedtime.

  • Consistent sleep schedule and the creation of a strict bedtime routine.

  • A high quality diet or multivitamin to make sure you’re not deficient in iron, magnesium, vitamin B, or folic acid, which have been linked to RLS.

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Common medications used to treat RLS symptoms include those to enhance dopamine activity, benzodiazepines to treat anxiety and insomnia, antiseizure medications to help regulate movements, and opioids for pain management [11].

Conversely, many of those medications cause unpleasant side effects whereas marijuana is generally well tolerated.

Additionally, patients with RLS often find their prescriptions are either too expensive, too harsh on their bodies, or just don’t work well for them.

Trying Medical Marijuana Treatment for Restless Legs Syndrome

Patients with restless legs syndrome have shown positive results with the usage of medical marijuana. 

If you are interested in trying medical marijuana for your RLS or are inquiring for a loved one, you should first seek out your local laws to determine the legality of the drug in your state, the types of medicine you can use, where to get it, and how much you need.

If you are located in Florida, check out THC Physicians for your medical evaluation, the first step in getting a Florida Medical Marijuana Card.

References:

  1. Cannabinoids in Parkinson's Disease: https://www.liebertpub.com/doi/full/10.1089/can.2017.0002

  2. Cannabinoids for treatment of chronic non-cancer pain; a systematic review of randomized trials. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21426373

  3. Smoked cannabis for chronic neuropathic pain: a randomized controlled trial. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2950205/

  4. Associations between sleep loss and increased risk of obesity and diabetes. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4394987/

  5. How Sleep Deprivation Affects Your Heart. https://www.sleepfoundation.org/sleep-news/how-sleep-deprivation-affects-your-heart

  6. Subjective sleep quality, unstimulated sexual arousal, and sexual frequency. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5760048/

  7. Lack of Sleep Making You Sick? https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/insomnia/expert-answers/lack-of-sleep/faq-20057757

  8. The Mediating Roles of Coping, Sleep, and Anxiety Motives in Cannabis Use and Problems among Returning Veterans with PTSD and MDD. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5218528/

  9. Cannabis for restless legs syndrome: a report of six patients. https://www.sleep-journal.com/article/S1389-9457(17)30222-8/fulltext

  10. Restless Legs Syndrome factsheet https://www.ninds.nih.gov/Disorders/Patient-Caregiver-Education/Fact-Sheets/Restless-Legs-Syndrome-Fact-Sheet

  11. Understanding Augmentation and Restless Legs Syndrome. https://www.rls.org/file/_2016-redesign/member-publications/webinars/2016/Medical_Marijuana-Bainbridge-Jun2016.pdf

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