Is Medical Marijuana Good for Treating Lupus?

Use Internet Research Skills to Determine Marijuana's Role in Managing Lupus

As more U.S. states make medical and recreational marijuana use legal, it's only natural to wonder if marijuana is a good lupus treatment. To find out, you can do research to learn more about medical marijuana and lupus. It's important to find trustworthy sources of information. One way to do this is to start with a simple internet search using the search terms lupus and medical marijuana

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Look Out for Red Flags

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Be aware of questionable content.

For example, you might come across an article from a patient advocacy website that isn't familiar. The article lists only one research article from over five years ago. The author bio states that the author works to promote the use of medical marijuana and is promoting a book about medical marijuana. Because this article isn't well supported by scientific research and the author has an agenda and is not objective, it's best to move on from this website.

The next site is another unfamiliar resource of health and medical information. The article profiles someone who has lupus who makes claims about the benefits of medical marijuana for treating lupus. There is no evidence of a medical professional having reviewed the article. There are no scientific research articles cited. There are no references at all. There is no information about the author. The website turns out to be a self-proclaimed resource for marijuana information and products. Again, there is a clear agenda and none of the information provided is backed up by evidence. Move on to the next website.

Yet again, the next website is directly tied to the medical marijuana industry. The article explains lupus and advocates for the use of medical marijuana in the treatment of lupus. The general information about lupus is mostly accurate, but not entirely. Again, this is an article with no references. The site makes extreme claims about how perfect medical marijuana is for treating lupus. The article even cites a doctor to support this claim. However, the doctor happens to run a medical marijuana clinic, and it is unclear what kind of doctor he is. The clinic is also advertised in the article. An internet search of this doctor turns up no information about his education, training, or credentials.

The next article is from a popular website for medical information, but the article is over 13 years old, so the information is outdated.

To summarize, when doing an internet search, look for accurate health information. Avoid websites with these red flags:

  • being an unknown resource of health and medical information with no reputable affiliations, or evidence of a scientific foundation
  • claiming to be a health information resource but having no system of medical review to ensure the accuracy of the information
  • having a conflict of interest, like making claims about the benefits of medical marijuana while also advertising your medical marijuana book or clinic, or selling medical marijuana-related products on your website
  • not backing up claims with  quality, up-to-date scientific research
  • or using only one or a handful of research articles to back up claims
  • only using personal stories (anecdotal reports) to make bold claims about the benefits of a certain treatment. Lupus is a complex disease that impacts each person differently. What might be true for one person with lupus cannot be applied to everyone with lupus. This is why it's important to have good research, with enough, participants to determine if a treatment is safe and effective for treating lupus.
  • having no medical credentials or medical expertise in lupus
  • using outdated information (more than five years old)

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Finally, Some Trustworthy Search Results

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Next is an article from the Lupus Foundation of America (LFA), recently medically reviewed—so it is current and has been reviewed by a medical professional.

The article states that further research about this topic is needed and if someone is considering using marijuana as part of their lupus treatment, they should speak with their rheumatologist.

The LFA is a leading, national lupus organization that fundraises and advocates for lupus research, and works to educate patients about the most current information about lupus. They work with medical professionals who have an expertise in lupus, including a Medical-Scientific Advisory Council.

This internet search also pulled up a Facebook post by Dr. Donald Thomas, author of The Lupus Encyclopedia and member of the Medical-Scientific Advisory Council of the LFA. The book was published by Johns Hopkins University Press, which belongs to a prestigious university and medical center. Dr. Thomas's post was from 2014, so it is recent and not outdated.

Because he is a medical doctor, lupus expert, and has an affiliation with the LFA, he is a trustworthy source of lupus-related information. His Facebook post echoes the same sentiment as the LFA's position on the use of marijuana to treat lupus.

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Go Directly to Reputable Websites

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A broad internet search only turned up a handful of quality results. Although short, the LFA's article was helpful. It provides accurate information, let's patients know that more research is needed, and directs people to their rheumatologists for further discussion. But what if someone wanted to know more? What current research is out there about lupus and medical marijuana? And what exactly does it say?

The next step is going to specific, reputable websites. For example, the Lupus Research Alliance (LRA) is a prominent, national lupus research organization. A search on their site turned up an article entitled, "Published Review Article by Canadian Rheumatologists Discourages Use of Medical Marijuana For Rheumatic Diseases Like Lupus."

The LRA article summarized a research article that concluded that doctors should discourage the use of medical marijuana, and one reason is because there is a lack of research evidence showing that the drug is effective and safe for treating lupus.

The study was linked in the article, and it directs the reader to PubMed where the article is listed. There is a link on the PubMed page that leads to the full text of the article. It's not easy to find. But since it says that there is a free full text available, you could also do an internet search of the article to see if it's available for free, online. Or if the abstract (summary) of the article is at least available. Luckily, in this case, the entire article is available, for free, online.

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The Dilemma of Medical Marijuana

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The benefit of the article, "The Dilemma of Medical Marijuana Use by Rheumatology Patients" is that it is a review of other relevant research studies about the topic. This means that the authors also asked the question, "What does the current research say about medical marijuana and rheumatological diseases like lupus, fibromyalgia, and rheumatoid arthritis (RA)?"

They concluded that marijuana use should be discouraged for rheumatology patients. But they also explained the reasons behind this conclusion.

Yes, it is true that marijuana can relieve pain symptoms. And while there is good evidence that marijuana helps relieve pain symptoms for people with cancer and neuropathic pain, these pain conditions are caused by different body mechanisms than the pain caused in rheumatic diseases. So, just because marijuana is good for decreasing cancer and neuropathic pain, that doesn't mean it is also good for decreasing lupus, fibromyalgia, or RA pain, for example.

In addition, the THC  levels (the active ingredient responsible for marijuana's effects on the mind and body) vary widely, which makes accurate dosing difficult.

When they wrote the article, no study existed that looked at the effectiveness or negative side effects of medical marijuana on rheumatic diseases.

Any information that did exist at the time came from personal stories (anecdotal reports), small studies, or were related to other types of marijuana extracts (natural and synthetic) that aren't the same substances as herbal medical marijuana. And in some of these studies, evidence was not clear because patients used recreational marijuana in addition to their other medications. This made their dosing unclear, and also made it unclear whether any symptom relief was caused by the marijuana or their other medication.

We need to ask more questions about marijuana like, How does medical marijuana interact with prescription medication? Drug interactions can cause severe side effects and even death, so this is an important question.

Information about known side effects comes mostly from what is known about recreational users, who are often younger and healthier than people with rheumatic disease. So then what are the side effects in people with lupus? Lupus is a disease that impacts the body in complex ways. Therefore, what works well for a person without lupus might not work well for someone with lupus.

In general and not specific to people with rheumatic diseases, the short-term effects that happen after ingesting the drug are well-known, like slowed reaction time and thinking, and memory problems.

Because rheumatic diseases are chronic that means that marijuana would be used long-term. What are the long-term effects of marijuana use for people with lupus? There is also a concern with smoking marijuana and how it could increase chances of lung disease or aggravate already-existing lung disease.

Is medical marijuana as effective as or better than current treatments for rheumatic disease? And if so, is there an equal or lesser number of side effects?

Because there are important questions that are still unanswered about  marijuana's safety and effectiveness, doctors cannot confidently advise patients to use it for treating rheumatic diseases like lupus. Also, in states where medical marijuana use is legal, there is no way for a doctor to accurately advise on dosing—how much marijuana to ingest.

Since there is not enough information about marijuana's safety and effectiveness for rheumatic disease, doctors must use what they know about marijuana for recreational use, including the side effects and possible drug interactions, and err on the side of being careful and not encouraging use. In general, they simply don't feel confident with prescribing medical marijuana for rheumatic diseases. They need more information because they are concerned with your health, safety, and overall well being and would rather err on the side of holding back recommending marijuana than put you at an unknown, perhaps serious, risk.

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The Facts vs. Popular Opinion

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So far, the article, "The Dilemma of Medical Marijuana Use by Rheumatology Patients,"  Dr. Thomas's Facebook post, and the LFA's article all agree that medical marijuana is not currently recommended for treating lupus. These are trustworthy and reliable sources for lupus information.

Their positions are in direct opposition to what came up during the initial internet search—that medical marijuana is safe, beneficial, and helpful for treating lupus.

This shows the importance of not accepting popular opinion as fact and taking a deeper look to find accurate health information.

Also, just because something comes up as one of the top results in an online search doesn't mean these are the most reliable sources of information. There are a variety of reasons why a website might come up as the first, second, or third result in an online search, and most of those reasons aren't related to the quality of the information found on those sites.

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Other Places to Find Information

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If you're interested in delving further into the topic of marijuana and lupus, there are more ways to find information.

  • First, broaden your search from medical marijuana and lupus to something like medical marijuana and rheumatic diseases. Try different search term combinations.
  • PubMed is a United States government website that provides free access to the National Library of Medicine database called Medline. Sometimes it provides complete articles. Other times it provides abstracts. Doing a PubMed search of lupus and marijuana will pull up an abstract for an article called "Transient Retinal Dysfunctions after Acute Cannabis Use" This is an example of a study that you cannot draw conclusions from because it is based on one, single case. But it does bring awareness to the possibilities of retinal dysfunction after marijuana use and could result in further research.
  • Google Scholar is a search engine of scholarly articles. It will list books and academic and research articles related to the topic you are searching. You can filter using a date range to be sure that you are not retrieving out of date information. Sometimes full articles are available for free. Other times only abstracts are available.
  • If you scroll toward the end of a research article, there will be a section called References. This is an excellent way to find other research articles. These were read and referenced by the author of the article you are currently reading. Look through this valuable list and see if any titles pop out at you. If so, search for that title online and see if you can find a free, full version or at least an abstract.

    For example, looking through the References list of the "The Dilemma of Medical Marijuana Use by Rheumatology Patients" article lists another interesting article called, "Rheumatologists lack confidence in their knowledge of cannabinoids pertaining to the management of rheumatic complaints."

    NOTE: If you cannot find a free copy of a research article, go to your local library. They will likely be able to obtain a free copy for you.
  • Lastly, when you want to find current scientific information about any alternative or complementary treatment, one good place to look is the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. Check out their section on medical marijuana, for general information on the topic, backed by science.

Speak With Your Rheumatologist 

Time and again during this research process, the message included, "Speak with your rheumatologist." If you are thinking about using medical marijuana and it is legal in your state, it's important to speak with your rheumatologist who treats you for lupus.

A general medical doctor may not consider the specifics of your health condition and your treatment. Not only should your rheumatologist know if you are considering using an alternative or complementary treatment like medical marijuana, they will be able to provide you with more information about medical marijuana and lupus—like whether they believe it is a safe drug to use. You can also go to them with questions you might have about something you came across in your research. Ultimately, the conclusion is that medical marijuana is not currently recommended for treating lupus because more research is needed.

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