Cannabis and cannabis oil for the treatment of Crohn's disease

What is Crohn's disease?

Crohn’s disease is a long-term condition that results in inflammation of the gastrointestinal tract, occurring anywhere from the mouth to the anus. Common symptoms include fever, diarrhoea, abdominal pain and weight loss. Crohn's disease is characterized by periods of relapse when people are actively experiencing symptoms and periods of remission when the symptoms stop.

What are Cannabis and Cannabinoids?

Cannabis is a widely used drug which acts on the endocannabinoid system. Cannabis contains multiple components called cannabinoids. The use of cannabis and cannabis oil containing specific cannabinoids produces mental and physical effects such as altered sensory perception and euphoria when consumed. Some cannabinoids, such as cannabidiol, do not have a psychoactive effect. Cannabis and cannabidiol have some anti-inflammatory properties that might help people with Crohn's disease.

What did the researchers investigate?

The researchers studied whether cannabis is better than placebo (e.g. a sugar pill) therapy for treating adults with active Crohn's disease or Crohn's disease that is in remission.

What did the researchers find?

The researchers extensively searched the literature up to 17 October 2018 and found three studies (93 participants) that met the inclusion criteria. One ongoing study was also identified. All of the studies were small in size and had some quality issues. One small study (21 participants) compared eight weeks of treatment with cannabis cigarettes containing 115 mg of D9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) to placebo cigarettes containing cannabis with the THC removed in participants with active Crohn's disease who had failed at least one medical treatment. Although no difference in clinical remission rates was observed, more participants in the cannabis group had improvement in their Crohn's disease symptoms than participants in the placebo group. More side effects were observed in the cannabis cigarette group compared to placebo. These side effects were considered to be mild in nature and included sleepiness, nausea, difficulty with concentration, memory loss, confusion and dizziness. Participants in the cannabis cigarette group reported improvements in pain, appetite and satisfaction with treatment.

One small study (22 participants) compared cannabis oil (10 mg of cannabidiol twice daily) to placebo oil (i.e. olive oil) in participants with active Crohn's disease who had failed at least one medical treatment. No difference in clinical remission rates was observed. There was no difference in serious side effects. Serious side effects included worsening Crohn's disease in one participant in each group.

One small study (50 participants) compared cannabis oil (composed of 15% cannabidiol and 4% THC) to placebo oil in participants with active Crohn's disease. Positive differences in quality of life and the Crohn's disease activity index were observed.

Conclusions

The effects of cannabis and cannabis oil on Crohn's disease are uncertain. No firm conclusions regarding the benefits and harms (e.g. side effects) of cannabis and cannabis oil in adults with Crohn's disease can be drawn. The effects of cannabis and cannabis oil in people with Crohn's disease in remission have not been investigated. Further studies with larger numbers of participants are required to assess the potential benefits and harms of cannabis in Crohn's disease. Future studies should assess the effects of cannabis in people with active and inactive Crohn's disease. Different doses of cannabis and formulations (e.g. cannabis oil or pills) should be investigated.

Authors' conclusions: 

The effects of cannabis and cannabis oil on Crohn's disease are uncertain. Thus no firm conclusions regarding the efficacy and safety of cannabis and cannabis oil in adults with active Crohn's disease can be drawn. The effects of cannabis or cannabis oil in quiescent Crohn's disease have not been investigated. Further studies with larger numbers of participants are required to assess the potential benefits and harms of cannabis in Crohn's disease. Future studies should assess the effects of cannabis in people with active and quiescent Crohn's disease. Different doses of cannabis and delivery modalities should be investigated.

Read the full abstract...
Background: 

Crohn's disease (CD) is a chronic immune-mediated condition of transmural inflammation in the gastrointestinal tract, associated with significant morbidity and decreased quality of life. The endocannabinoid system provides a potential therapeutic target for cannabis and cannabinoids and animal models have shown benefit in decreasing inflammation. However, there is also evidence to suggest transient adverse events such as weakness, dizziness and diarrhea, and an increased risk of surgery in people with CD who use cannabis.

Objectives: 

The objectives were to assess the efficacy and safety of cannabis and cannabinoids for induction and maintenance of remission in people with CD.

Search strategy: 

We searched MEDLINE, Embase, AMED, PsychINFO, the Cochrane IBD Group Specialized Register, CENTRAL, ClinicalTrials.Gov, and the European Clinical Trials Register up to 17 October 2018. We searched conference abstracts, references and we also contacted researchers in this field for upcoming publications.

Selection criteria: 

Randomized controlled trials comparing any form of cannabis or its cannabinoid derivatives (natural or synthetic) to placebo or an active therapy for adults with Crohn’s disease were included.

Data collection and analysis: 

Two authors independently screened search results, extracted data and assessed bias using the Cochrane risk of bias tool. The primary outcomes were clinical remission and relapse. Remission is commonly defined as a Crohn's disease activity index (CDAI) of < 150. Relapse is defined as a CDAI > 150. Secondary outcomes included clinical response, endoscopic remission, endoscopic improvement, histological improvement, quality of life, C-reactive protein (CRP) and fecal calprotectin measurements, adverse events (AEs), serious AEs, withdrawal due to AEs, and cannabis dependence and withdrawal effects. We calculated the risk ratio (RR) and corresponding 95% confidence interval (95% CI) for dichotomous outcomes. For continuous outcomes, we calculated the mean difference (MD) and 95% CI. Data were combined for analysis when the interventions, patient groups and outcomes were sufficiently similar (determined by consensus). Data were analyzed on an intention-to-treat basis and the overall certainty of the evidence supporting the outcomes was evaluated using the GRADE criteria.

Main results: 

Three studies (93 participants) that assessed cannabis in people with active CD met the inclusion criteria. One ongoing study was also identified. Participants in two of the studies were adults with active Crohn's disease who had failed at least one medical treatment. The inclusion criteria for the third study were unclear. No studies that assessed cannabis therapy in quiescent CD were identified. The studies were not pooled due to differences in the interventional drug.

One small study (N = 21) compared eight weeks of treatment with cannabis cigarettes containing 115 mg of D9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) to placebo cigarettes containing cannabis with the THC removed in participants with active CD. This study was rated as high risk of bias for blinding and other bias (cannabis participants were older than placebo). The effects of cannabis on clinical remission were unclear. Forty-five per cent (5/11) of the cannabis group achieved clinical remission compared with 10% (1/10) of the placebo group (RR 4.55, 95% CI 0.63 to 32.56; very low certainty evidence). A difference was observed in clinical response (decrease in CDAI score of >100 points) rates. Ninety-one per cent (10/11) of the cannabis group achieved a clinical response compared to 40% (4/10) of the placebo group (RR 2.27, 95% CI 1.04 to 4.97; very low certainty evidence). More AEs were observed in the cannabis cigarette group compared to placebo (RR 4.09, 95% CI 1.15 to 14.57; very low certainty evidence). These AEs were considered to be mild in nature and included sleepiness, nausea, difficulty with concentration, memory loss, confusion and dizziness. This study did not report on serious AEs or withdrawal due to AEs.

One small study (N = 22) compared cannabis oil (5% cannabidiol) to placebo oil in people with active CD. This study was rated as high risk of bias for other bias (cannabis participants were more likely than placebo participants to be smokers). There was no difference in clinical remission rates. Forty per cent (4/10) of cannabis oil participants achieved remission at 8 weeks compared to 33% (3/9) of the placebo participants (RR 1.20, 95% CI 0.36 to 3.97; very low certainty evidence). There was no difference in the proportion of participants who had a serious adverse event. Ten per cent (1/10) of participants in the cannabis oil group had a serious adverse event compared to 11% (1/9) of placebo participants (RR 0.90, 95% CI 0.07 to 12.38, very low certainty evidence). Both serious AEs were worsening Crohn's disease that required rescue intervention. This study did not report on clinical response, CRP, quality of life or withdrawal due to AEs.

One small study (N= 50) compared cannabis oil (15% cannabidiol and 4% THC) to placebo in participants with active CD. This study was rated as low risk of bias. Differences in CDAI and quality of life scores measured by the SF-36 instrument were observed. The mean quality of life score after 8 weeks of treatment was 96.3 in the cannabis oil group compared to 79.9 in the placebo group (MD 16.40, 95% CI 5.72 to 27.08, low certainty evidence). After 8 weeks of treatment, the mean CDAI score was118.6 in the cannabis oil group compared to 212.6 in the placebo group (MD -94.00, 95%CI -148.86 to -39.14, low certainty evidence). This study did not report on clinical remission, clinical response, CRP or AEs.

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