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Stroke Patients Who Smoke Cannabis Have a Higher Risk of Developing a Complication, Study Finds

Published: Jan 14, 2022   

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Stroke Patients Who Smoke Cannabis Have a Higher Risk of Developing a Complication, Study Finds

Leo Bear-McGuinness
Science Writer & Editor

Young cannabis consumers seem to be at a higher risk of developing long-term disabilities following a stroke, according to new research.

Published in the journal Stroke, the research reviewed the medical records of 1,014 patients who had been hospitalized with an aneurysmal sub-arachnoid hemorrhage (aSAH), a type of stroke that involves a bleed on the brain. Forty-six of these patients had tested positive for THC.

After comparing the outcomes of the cannabis-positive patients with the others, the researchers found that the patients who had tested positive for THC were 2.8 times more likely to have a long-term moderate-to-severe physical disability following their stroke.

More concerningly, the patients were also 2.2 more likely to die after their stroke than the cannabis-sober patients.

Due to the nature of the study, this positive relationship between cannabis and worse stroke outcomes was only observed, not clinically proven. To properly determine if THC can worsen the impacts of a stroke, the authors of the paper plan to conduct a follow-up lab study.


Inside the stroke study

To get their findings, the researchers reviewed the data of 1,014 aSAH patients who had been treated at the Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix, Arizona, from August 1, 2007, to July 31, 2019. Forty-six of these patients (4.5 percent) had tested positive for THC.

Following their stroke, half of all patients (50.2 percent) were considered to have a “poor functional outcome,” 36.2 percent of patients suffered from delayed cerebral ischemia (poor blood flow in the brain), and 13.5 percent died.

The researchers found that 52.2 percent of THC-positive patients suffered a delayed cerebral ischemia (DCI), compared to 35.4 percent of the other patients. Cocaine, methamphetamine, and tobacco, on the other hand, were not associated with a higher risk of DCI.

Overall, THC-positive stroke patients were 2.7 times more likely to have a DCI, 2.8 times more likely to have a long-term disability, and 2.2 times more likely to die.

“We’re all vulnerable to a bleeding stroke or a ruptured aneurysm, however, if you’re a routine marijuana user, you may be predisposed to a worse outcome from a stroke after the rupture of that aneurysm,” Michael T. Lawton, a senior author of the study and president of the Barrow Neurological Institute, said in a statement.

While Lawton and his colleagues note that their study has its limitations – the small sample size of cannabis users, a lack of information on their frequency and dosing of THC, etc. – they say that the observed association between cannabis use and stroke outcomes is still significant.

As to what could be causing the association, the researchers’ paper highlights a few possible explanations from previous studies. According to one paper, THC may directly increase a person’s vulnerability to a stroke by altering the brain’s maximal oxidative capacity. The compound has also been shown to induce cerebral vasoconstriction and multifocal angiopathy (when small blood vessels burst).

But to truly determine if and how THC affects stroke outcomes, the researchers behind the new study say a double-blind, placebo-controlled, randomized controlled trial will be needed.


Conflicting research

While the authors of the Stroke paper highlighted a few studies that demonstrated a link between strokes and cannabis use, other studies have come to different conclusions.

One observational study published in 2020 found that marijuana-consuming patients were no more likely to have a stroke than those who didn’t use the drug. In that study, the researchers sifted through data of 9,350 patients who were admitted to the University of Mississippi Medical Center with a stroke.

Of those who tested positive for cannabis, 8 percent had experienced a stroke. Of those who tested negative, 16 percent had experienced a stroke – double the rate of those who consumed cannabis.

“While more research is needed with larger numbers of people, our study lends support to the studies showing that cannabis use does not increase the risk of stroke,” Carmela V San Luis, a neurology researcher at the University of Mississippi in Jackson, said in a statement at the time.

Much like Lawton, San Luis remarked that more thorough investigative studies will be needed before a firm conclusion can be made about whether THC increases the chances of having a stroke or not.

“Our research adds to the list of studies with conflicting results, so it is important to continue to investigate stroke risk and cannabis use,” San Luis said at the time.

“Future studies are now needed in larger groups of people that not only include data from drug screenings but also dosing amounts as well as a person’s history of cannabis use.”

 

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