SAN FRANCISCO (KRON) — Medical marijuana was legalized in California because of the relief it brings to sick patients. One of the drug’s health benefits is to calm nausea and spur the appetites of people undergoing chemotherapy. But the drug’s growing popularity is bringing to light an unwanted side effect for a small number of heavy users.
KRON4’s Maureen Kelly takes an in-depth look at this newly discovered syndrome.
“It’s the most excruciating nausea that you could possibly imagine,“ Steve Ellias said.
Ellias, of Grass Valley, is describing the symptoms he has endured on-and-off for more than three decades. He now believes the symptoms are the result of his past chronic pot use.
“Usually, I would smoke anywhere from 10-15 times a day,” Ellias said.
“It’s like you’re at your very worst point when you have the flu and you know that you are going to be sick, but imagine getting stuck there for hours, days, and sometimes even weeks and nothing will relieve that nausea,” Elias said. “It’s almost enough to make you think you will go out of your mind.”
Sometimes the bouts would be so serious he’d end up in the emergency room.
“At one point, I lost 40 pounds in 10 days,” Elias said. “That’s how dramatic it was. I could not keep food or water down, not to be dramatic, but I showed up at the hospital and I was within hours of kidney failure is what the doctor told me, so this can be an actual life-threatening situation.”
But for much of his life, his condition was a mystery. Doctors sometimes suggested that his illness was all in his head.
“Literally dozens of doctors looked at me, and I’ve had extensive medical tests,” Elias said.
But at his last trip to the emergency room, a nurse showed him an article about a 2004 medical study of something called Cannabinoid Hyperemesis Syndrome or CHS, which linked cyclical vomiting with heavy cannabis use.
“As soon as I read it, knew that it was me. I knew that it was me. And I almost teared up because after 35 years of suffering, I could not believe that I had finally found a diagnosis,” Elias said.
Steve says it wasn’t so much the study’s link between pot smoking and excessive vomiting, but the identification of the one thing that commonly brings patients who suffer from CHS relief–immersion in hot water by way of a hot shower or a bath.
“I would literally spend 2-3 weeks immersed in hot water 24 hours a day,” Elias said. “Within minutes of getting out of my hot water, I would get excruciating agonizing nauseous, and I’d have to rush back in and immerse myself and it wasn’t total relief, but it was enough to rid me of that feeling away that I’m gonna just die if I don’t do something.”
Dr. Linda Nguyen is a gastroenterologist at Stanford Health Care.
She says the legal and political issues around marijuana means there haven’t been many studies of Cannabinoid Hyperemesis Syndrome.
“No one knows why the hot showers help with the symptoms and the hotter the baths, the hotter the shower, the better they feel,” Nguyen said. “There have been reports where patients have actually scalded themselves because they needed it at such hot temperatures.”
“The thought is there might be a build up of the THC in the brain where it changes some of the thermal sensors and that may be why the heat helps out with it,” Nguyen added.
She says the syndrome is not common among chronic pot user and it’s unknown why some chronic users end up developing CHS, and other’s don’t.
“Individuals who get this tend to be younger when they start and have been using marijuana for a long time, men more than women for some reason,” Dr. Nguyen said.
Dr. Kai Li says she’s seen a few of these cases turn up in the ER at San Francisco General.
She says the diagnosis takes those affected patients by surprise.
“They think of marijuana primarily as a medication that will prevent nausea, so when they start to get a lot of vomiting, they actually smoke more because they think they are treating their symptoms and it actually makes the symptoms worse,” Dr. Li said.
Right now, there is only one known cure–put down the pipe.
“…I went a year with none, and then I tried a little bit, and right away, the symptoms came back,” Elias said.
Ellias says he no longer has problems keeping down food and he’s now back to living a normal life.
“I haven’t touched it since, nor will I ever touch it again because for some of us it’s poison, not for the average smoker, but for those of us with CHS, this is poison,” Li said.
He says he doesn’t miss smoking pot anymore.
He’s just grateful to have another chance to be healthy.