Mysterious Marijuana-Related Illness Popping Up In Emergency Rooms

By | June 3, 2016

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A mysterious marijuana-related illness is popping up with increasing frequency in hospital emergency rooms, particularly in states where cannabis is now legal.

The symptoms are severe abdominal pain and violent vomiting — and most doctors are initially stumped when they encounter patients with the problem.

The illness is cannabinoid hyperemesis syndrome, which is linked to heavy, long-term use of marijuana, according to experts. For some reason, the nausea and vomiting of CHS can be relieved with hot showers or baths, which can serve as an important hint for physicians trying to diagnose a patient. 

Since 2009, when the federal government relaxed its stance on medical marijuana, emergency room diagnoses for CHS in two of Colorado’s hospitals nearly doubled, according to a study co-authored by Dr. Kennon Heard, a physician at the University of Colorado Hospital in Aurora. Now that cannabis is also legal for recreational use in the state, “we are seeing it quite frequently,” Heard told CBS News. “My colleagues are seeing this on a daily to weekly basis.”

Emergency rooms in other areas where cannabis is legal are also reporting more cases of CHS. Georgetown University Hospital in Washington, D.C., and Harborview Medical Center and the University of Washington Medical Center in Seattle are among hospitals reporting an uptick

Though CHS was first recognized almost a decade ago, not much is known about the illness.

“The science behind it is not clear,” Heard told the Denver Channel. “The most likely cause is that people using marijuana frequently and in high doses have changes in the receptors in their body, and those receptors become dysregulated in some way, and it starts causing pain.”

Dr. David Steinbruner, an emergency room physician at Memorial Hospital in Colorado Springs, believes it’s likely triggered with a significant amount of marijuana. “The corollary would be alcohol. So small amounts may be fine for people, but over a long time it will cause all kinds of problems,” Steinbruner told KDRO-TV.

In its most severe form, the illness can lead to kidney failure — but symptoms stop within days of ending marijuana use.

“Patients are given IV fluids and medication to resolve the vomiting and help with the pain,” explained Heard. “But the treatment is really to stop using marijuana, or at least to cut back severely, and that’s really the only way to make it better.” 

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