Marijuana and Traumatic Brain Injury: Can You Consume Cannabis with a Concussion?

Find out what science is saying about this topic

Concussions are a lot more common in the United States than most people realize. According to the Centers for Disease Control, well over 1 million Americans suffer from a diagnosed event each year, and many millions more suffer from undiagnosed events. Tens of thousands of these patients are children aged 5 to 18, and studies have shown that early-age concussions can lead to an increased dependence on drugs and alcohol later in life.

And the sad part is that other than rest, there are currently no accepted forms of medical treatment for concussion. Marijuana, however, may turn out to be a key player as decades of research on Traumatic Brain Injury has shown that cannabis may be able to protect the brain’s cells from long-term concussion-induced damage.

| “After decades of research, strong evidence exists showing that cannabis may be the only natural compound able to protect the brain’s cells after concussion-induced damage.

In fact, the U.S. government currently holds a patent on cannabinoids for their neuroprotective capabilities, and not too long ago, a Harvard doctor issued an open letter to the NFL urging commissioner Roger Goodell to consider the use of marijuana to treat post-game concussions.

The evidence is there that marijuana for concussions can be an effective, reliable treatment for patients of all ages. So why aren’t we using it more? Why aren’t doctors actually prescribing it after (or during) emergency room visits? Let’s take a look.

What is a concussion?

In order to understand how marijuana helps the brain recovery process after a concussion, we first have to understand what a concussion is, and what it’s immediate and long-term effects are.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, a concussion takes place when the brain “bumps” the skull after a significant impact to the head.

DID YOU KNOW: The majority of concussion-related hospital visits are the result of sports injuries or car accidents?

In fact, every concussion – even mild ones – are classified as a Traumatic Brain Injury, or TBI. Whenever the brain gets injured, it releases compounds called glutamates that result in the buildup of calcium over time, as well as neurological cell degeneration. As we’ll see shortly, the antioxidative properties of cannabis may be able to help prevent this cell degeneration, as well as its long-term effects.

When speaking of TBI, it’s important to understand that a spectrum exists relating to the severity of brain-related injuries. Most TBI cases (up to 80%, in fact) fall under the mild spectrum, which includes concussions (often referred to clinically as ‘mild TBI’).

The real danger of concussions – aside from the temporary headaches and nausea that it produces – lies in what’s known as ‘Concussion Plus.’ This is a phrase coined by Dr. Gillian Hotz that describes the long-term impact of concussion, as well as its debilitating (and sometimes even fatal) effects. Calcium buildup and damage to brain cells can result in a variety of long-term psychological conditions, including early-onset dementia and Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) – both of which can be deadly.

In fact, the prevalence of long-term concussion side effects among former NFL players (and other professional athletes) has been well-documented in recent years, particularly with the TBI-related deaths of Pittsburg Steelers lineman Ralph Wenzel, as well as Philadelphia Eagles fullback Kevin Turner.

But is there anything doctors can do to prevent the long-term impacts of concussion, or to reduce the prevalence of related onset conditions like dementia or CTE?

Concussions: How are they typically treated?

The sad reality is that, other than rest, there really is no standard protocol when it comes to the clinical treatment of concussion. The biomechanical impact that takes place when the brain comes into contact with the skull produces headache, dizziness, and nausea, and these symptoms typically persist for 8-12 days. The only real “treatment” is rest, as well as the administration of mild OTC analgesics like Tylenol and ibuprofen.

However, it is clear that repeat concussions over an extended period of time can result in very serious long-term conditions, such as the ones mentioned above.

| “In a 2015 study, in fact, researchers from Boston University observed that 96% of former NFL players showed early symptoms of CTE.”

Of course, the scary thing about CTE is the fact that it is a progressive brain disease; meaning it inherently gets worse over time with no known treatment. Some of the long-term symptoms of the disorder include depression, aggressive behavior, memory loss, impaired judgment, loss of motor function, thoughts of suicidal, and eventually, full-blown dementia.

Adequate treatment of concussion is something that clinical researchers have been taking very seriously in recent years, and as it turns out, the active chemical compounds within marijuana just may be the best option in terms of limiting long-term brain cell deterioration.

Marijuana for Concussion: What You Need to Know

To be clear, the use of marijuana for concussion is being taken very seriously by some of the top doctors, psychiatrists, and neurological researchers in the world. Back in 2014, after being astonished by the protective effects of cannabis on brain cell deterioration, Harvard Medical School professor Dr. Lester Grinspoon actually penned an open letter to the NFL pleading for the issuance of grant money to research the clinical effects of cannabis on concussion-related symptoms.

Dr. Grinspoon’s pleas were answered, and in 2016, researchers from the University of Miami were awarded a $16 million grant to try and develop a patented “cannabis pill” that individuals could take after suffering a concussion (or other forms of TBI).

The goal of the 5-year clinical investigation (which is currently ongoing and led by University of Miami’s Dr. Michael Hoffer), is to create a CBD-based medicine that would “disrupt the series of chemical reactions that follow a concussion and lead to brain-cell death.”

CBD – short for cannabidiol – is a natural cannabis extract that unlike THC, does not get users high. For obvious reasons, it is being regarded as the preferred compound of choice in many instances of therapeutic marijuana use. Results of the clinical investigation will not be out for several years, but early signs have indeed been promising, with Dr. Hoffer claiming that “if we can stabilize those [brain cells at risk], we can prevent the dominos [of onset CTE] from falling.”

“What that pill would do is stabilize the brain, so that when you get a head injury, there may only be a few brain cells that are injured to the point of no return.”

-University of Miami’s Dr. Michael Hoffer

But what about victims of concussion who do not want to wait several years for a potential cannabis-based pill to come out? Can’t you just use “regular marijuana” (i.e. smoke a joint) to achieve the same positive effects?

As it turns out, there is plenty of research that exists showing you very well may be able to do so.

Smoking weed for concussion: Dispelling the myths and facts

To be clear, the neuroprotective properties of cannabis are not up for debate. Several in-depth scientific investigations have shown that marijuana undoubtedly possesses chemical properties that limit brain cell deterioration, and in fact, the U.S government holds a patent on natural cannabis compounds for their ability to “limit neurological damage.”

Of course, this doesn’t mean that you need to go and smoke an entire joint or bowl and get stoned out of your mind in order to obtain the protective benefits of cannabis. In fact, the majority of researchers have said that ultra-low dosing is likely preferable over “standard” dosing (i.e. getting high).

| “Most researchers agree that when it comes to the protective benefits of marijuana, ultra-low dosing is preferable to “getting high.”

In one 2017 study titled “Endocannabinoids: A Promising Impact for Traumatic Brain Injury,” researchers determined that endocannabinoids represent “important areas of basic research and potential therapeutic interest to treating TBI [including concussion].”

Another study, published in 2014 in The American Surgeon, noted that the use of THC was associated with “decreased mortality in adult patients [that sustained] TBI.”

As you can see, there is no shortage of evidence that the use of marijuana for concussion may very well be one of the most positive forms of treatments available. The protective benefits of active cannabinoids on brain cells have been well-documented, and it is very likely that cannabis consumption after a concussion may lead to decreased brain cell damage, and also to a decreased instance of long-term CTE.

Final Thoughts on Marijuana for Concussion

To be clear, we’re not telling you to go out and smoke a bunch of marijuana if you’ve suffered a concussion. We are by no means medical professionals, and as such, it is always important to speak with your doctor before implementing any new therapy into your personal treatment plan.

That said, hopefully we have been able to shed some light on the potential therapeutic use of marijuana for concussion, as there is certainly no shortage of data that points to the plant’s positive long-term effects.

In the years to come, hopefully cannabis will be viewed as a common therapeutic option when it comes to the reliable treatment of Mild Traumatic Brain Injury. As Emory University’s Dr. David Wright puts it, “designing treatments [for concussion] has not taken off because, despite the fact that millions and millions of people are having concussions every year, we’ve just been behind the game.”