Smoking Out Sleep Problems: Pot May Fight Restless Legs Syndrome

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Marijuana may help relieve the symptoms of restless legs syndrome, a very small report from France suggests.

People with restless legs syndrome (RLS) experience unpleasant and often painful sensations in their legs, and feel an irresistible urge to move their legs when resting, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. The severity of these symptoms often increases when a person is asleep, which then leads to problems falling and staying asleep, according to the institute.

Although the new report suggests that marijuana helped relieve the symptoms of the disorder in six people, more research is needed to examine marijuana's efficacy and safety for reducing symptoms of restless legs syndrome, said Dr. Imad Ghorayeb, a sleep medicine expert at the Bordeaux Hospital University Center in France. Ghorayeb treated the people in the study and co-authored the case report. [25 Odd Facts About Marijuana]

The people in the report had severe RLS, and all had told their doctors that the medications they took for the disorder had not been very effective or caused unpleasant side effects. Those medications included opioid pain relievers and dopamine agonists, which act on receptors in the brain that produce dopamine, a chemical that helps to regulate mood and movement. In addition, some of the people had taken clonazepam and gabapentin, which are also used to treat seizures. Two study participants who were taking dopamine agonists had experienced binge eating and compulsive shopping, potential side effects of those medications.

In the new report, five of the patients reported that their symptoms were completely relieved after they smoked marijuana. One patient reported that his symptoms were completely relieved after he used the marijuana compound cannabidiol. All of the people said that their sleep quality improved significantly after they smoked marijuana or consumed cannabidiol.

The results show that "cannabis was the most tolerated and efficacious drug compared to previous RLS-specific medications the patients have already tried," Ghorayeb told Live Science. "Although I do not recommend the systematic use of cannabis, I would not go against patients with severe and refractory RLS who admit cannabis use."

It is not completely clear why marijuana would help relieve RLS symptoms, but the effect may have something to do with the drug's pain-relief properties, the researchers said. These effects may occur because marijuana's compounds also act on endocannabinoid receptors in the body, which are involved in pain sensation, the researchers said. Moreover, marijuana may relieve anxiety and make users sleepy, which may enhance the perceived pain relief the drug brings, Ghorayeb said. [7 Ways Marijuana May Affect the Brain]

However, the case report had limitations, the researchers noted. For example, it relied on the people's subjective evaluations of marijuana's benefits, and the drug's psychoactive properties may have skewed their conclusions, the researchers said. In other words, these properties may have affected the way the people perceived how the drug really affected their symptoms.

"Robust clinical trials are required to test the adequate profile of the effectiveness and safety of cannabinoids in RLS," the researchers wrote in the report, published in May in the journal Sleep Medicine.

Originally published on Live Science.

Staff Writer