Irritable Bowel Syndrome

Medical Marijuana for those with Irritable Bowel Syndrome


Tens of millions of people suffer from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), an enigmatic problem with no known cause and no effective remedy. Sometimes referred to as spastic colon, it affects 10% to 20% of otherwise healthy adults, most of them women. In the United States it accounts for as many as 3.5 million visits to physicians and 2.2 million prescriptions each year. The symptoms include intermittent lower abdominal cramps and bloating accompanied by spells of diarrhea, sometimes alternating with constipation. The abdominal pain generally subsides after a bowel movement or after passing gas, but there is excessive mucus in the stool, and patients often feel that the rectum is not fully emptied. Since IBS is easily confused with other diseases, including Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, diverticula disease, and colorectal cancer, it is important for a person with these symptoms to consult a physician. The most common dietary recommendation is fiber to increase the stool’s bulk and speed it through the gastrointestinal tract. Drug therapy is often not very useful; the drugs most commonly used are anticholinergics and antispasmodics such as Bentyl (dicyclomine) and Imodium (loperamide).

The following account is by a woman who has found marijuana more useful than any prescribed drug.

My name is Christine, and I’m thirty-four years old. I live in the San Francisco Bay area and work as director of information systems for a large labor union. I have a college education and I’m a single mother of two lovely and bright children. I used marijuana recreationally in high school, stopped using it completely when I was 20, and began to use it again on rare occasions recreationally about a year ago. I don’t smoke, drink, or take any other non-prescription drugs.

In 1994 I was diagnosed with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). My bouts with the disease normally come within thirty minutes of eating. I experience severe cramping, nausea, and diarrhea. Whenever I eat I have to keep track of where the nearest bathroom is just in case. The diagnosis is very frustrating because it basically means that my gastroenterologist cannot find anything to account for my symptoms. I have had a regular workup including a physical exam, flexible sigmoidoscopy, colonoscopy, upper GI with small bowel follow-through, and a month-long bland diet with a phase-in of different foods. None of these tests has turned up any physiological problem that would explain my symptoms. I had as many bouts with IBS on a bland diet as I had eating any other foods.

I was given a prescription for Bentyl (dicyclomine), which slows down the digestive tract so that food doesn’t process through so quickly. The problem is that my bouts with IBS appear to be random, and by the time the Bentyl is in my system I’m already suffering greatly. I found Bentyl to be ineffective unless I took it regularly, which I wasn’t willing to do because it wasn’t that helpful to me and I didn’t like the side effects.

I first tried using marijuana for my IBS about six months ago and found that a few puffs on a joint would give me immediate relief from both the urgent diarrhea and the nausea. I got the idea when my mom was dying of cancer and I was trying to get her to use it for her nausea. I have been trying to find a way to use marijuana immediately at the onset of nausea and cramps, but since it is illegal without a doctor’s recommendation in California, the situation is difficult. I don’t want to be arrested for using it in public.

* as always please be sure to consult with a health professional to assess the risks and rewards of adding medicinal cannabis to your treatment program.