Cachexia (Wasting Syndrome) and Medical Cannabis


Recent studies point to medicinal cannabis as helpful in treating cachexia (wasting syndrome).

What Is Cachexia (Wasting Syndrome)?

Dramatic weight loss and severe muscle atrophy are indicators of cachexia, known as the wasting syndrome. It is diagnosed in patients who suffer chronic illness such as type 1 diabetes, multiple sclerosis, HIV, and cancer. It is also detected in children with a “failure to thrive” syndrome, meaning that their current rate of weight gain is lower than in most children of the same age. The weight loss in any case is not intentional. In cancer patients, cachexia is associated with a decreased response to therapy and a poor prognosis. In all patients, cachexia causes a dramatic loss of skeletal muscle, leading to immobility.

The exact cause of cachexia is unknown, and the drugs currently used to combat the condition do not follow a common treatment method. The aim in all cases, however, is to interrupt or reverse the wasting cycle and improve the quality of life for those patients with chronic illness.

Symptoms of Cachexia

These are some of the common symptoms of the wasting syndrome:

  • Involuntary or unintentional weight loss. It occurs without an attempt to lose weight and often to a greater extent. Weight loss may occur even with an adequate amount of calories in the diet and even if caloric intake outweighs energy output.
  • Skeletal muscle wasting. This is the hallmark evidence of cachexia, which occurs with a loss of fat. It can also be deceiving. For a person who is overweight at the time of diagnosis, the loss of muscle mass may be significant even though it is not easily apparent.
  • Anorexia or loss of appetite. In the case of cachexia, this symptom differs somewhat from usual appetite loss symptoms. Instead of merely a decreased desire for certain foods, the patient with wasting syndrome loses any desire to eat anything.
  • Lowered quality of life. The patient with wasting syndrome over time loses the ability to walk and to take part in any activities that would normally be enjoyable.

What Are the Common Conditions and Diseases Associated with Cachexia?

Cases of cachexia have been detected in elderly patients who show no indication of another disease.

Although cachexia is not starvation, it can become part of the condition and occurs with various serious illnesses, including the following:

  • Cancer of the pancreas, stomach, esophagus, colon, and rectum
  • HIV/AIDS
  • Congestive heart failure
  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Tuberculosis
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
  • Cystic fibrosis
  • Crohn’s disease

Why Include Medical Cannabis to Treat Cachexia?

Cachexia, also known as wasting syndrome, is a common symptom amongst patients living with congestive heart failure, hormonal deficiencies, HIV/AIDS, cancer and other medical conditions. Patients who experience cachexia lose significant amounts of body weight unintentionally, and their appetites also decrease.  Other indications of cachexia are fatigue, atrophy of the muscles and feeling weak.  In the most severe cases, the effects of cachexia worsen the underlying condition leading to higher morbidity rates.

Patients living with the effects of cachexia have few options for traditional treatments.  Research has focused on the benefits of medical cannabis in cancer patients to reduce nausea, vomiting, and anorexia, as well as those living with HIV/AIDS.  The studies noted a significant improvement in both patient populations compared to traditional medical interventions.  Patients experienced reduced nausea and vomiting as well as increased appetite that improved overall nutritional deficiencies that cause muscle atrophy, weakness and other symptoms associated with cachexia.

The effects of cachexia are best treated with extracts of the whole cannabis plant.  Patients may choose from a range of forms, such as teas, vaporization, and edibles.

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