According to a survey of 4,269 adults in the U.S. in 2014, 7.2% of respondents reported current marijuana use within the past 30 days. Of the current users, 10.5% reported medicinal-only use. Medical marijuana has been used to treat cancer, arthritis, dermatitis, insomnia, pain, and neuropathy. Additional data from the survey showed that marijuana is primarily used in a combusted mode, while 16.1% use it in an edible form, and 7.6% through a vaporizer. Since marijuana is being used in various forms for medicinal purposes, it is important to understand the general risks and benefits of use.
Studies About the use of marijuana for COPD
There are not many studies that provide conclusive data on the risks and benefits of marijuana use for the treatment of COPD. Additional studies are needed, especially on individuals using marijuana who are at least 40 years of age, which would be consistent with the average age of onset of COPD. In addition, these studies will need a larger number of enrolled patients, controlled quantities of use, and better monitoring of duration of use.
Despite the limited data, however, research suggests that marijuana may be helpful as an anti-inflammatory, immunosuppressant, and bronchodilator to open up the airways. However, smoking marijuana may cause microscopic injury to the lungs that may lead to an increase in chronic bronchitis and has been linked to causing COPD. It is generally believed that any kind of combustion creates lung irritants that may be counterproductive for COPD treatment. To avoid the negative effects of smoking marijuana, patients with COPD may use smokeless methods to achieve similar benefits.
Smokeless forms of marijuana
Smokeless methods of marijuana use may include vaporizing, oral ingestion, transdermal patch, intravenous injection, sublingual absorption (under the tongue), or rectal suppository. Based on small studies and personal user accounts, vaporizing, oral ingestion, and sublingual absorption are the most popular smokeless methods for patients with COPD.
Vaporizers heat marijuana just enough to avoid the smoke and toxins associated with combustion. A published review of self-reported respiratory symptoms revealed that the use of a vaporizer predicted fewer respiratory symptoms than smoked marijuana. A vaporizer was more beneficial for patients who used large amounts of marijuana. The data suggest that the safety of marijuana can increase with the use of a vaporizer. Personal accounts from patients with COPD who reported use of a vaporizer showed that their breathing returned very close to normal after vaporizing 4 to 8 hits in the morning and more in the evening, they feel relief about 1 to 2 hours afterwards with added relief from an inhaler, and have fewer uses of the rescue inhaler.
Tinctures are a liquid concentration of marijuana. A few drops are placed under the tongue and the effects can be felt rapidly, usually within 15 minutes, with a steady high over a long period of time. In a small study published in 2011, patients with COPD receiving sublingual marijuana extract picked “air hunger” breathlessness as a descriptor less frequently than patients taking placebo. For new users, marijuana is more easily absorbed into the body when it is consumed through vapors or tinctures. This makes it easier to gauge the effects.
Edible forms of marijuana, such as teas, baked goods, and candies are unpredictable. When ingesting marijuana, new users will need to allow for extra time and use caution, because the effective dose can be difficult to predict. Eating marijuana may require 4 to 8 times the amount of marijuana needed for smoking. It may take at least 30 minutes to feel the effect and may reach a peak in 2 to 3 hours with duration of relief of 6 to 8 hours. The duration of relief is shorter when vaporization or sublingual methods are used.
The most common adverse effects reported from medical marijuana use are dizziness, dry mouth, nausea, fatigue, sleepiness, euphoria, vomiting, disorientation, drowsiness, confusion, loss of balance, and hallucination. Long-term health risks of marijuana are unclear, particularly among COPD patients, and any data are primarily based on recreational use. As of 2012, no fatal overdose with marijuana alone has been reported.
As with any medication or treatment, it is recommended that you consult your physician before using marijuana.1-3
Schauer GL, King BA, bunnell RE, Promoff G, McAfee TA. Toking, vaping, and eating for health or fun: Marijuana use patterns in adults, U.S. 2014. Am J Prev Med. 2015;Aug 7:epub ahead of print.
Earleywine M and Barnwell S. Decreased respiratory symptoms in cannabis users who vaporize. Harm Reduction Journal. 2007;4:11.
Pickering EE, Semple SJ, Nazir MS, Murphy K, et al. Cannabinoid effects on ventilation and breathlessness: a pilot study of efficacy and safety. Chron Respir Dis. 2011;8:109-118.