GUEST BLOG POST: Shaun Simpson

So, my spinal headache turns 8 years old this week; I kinda feel like I should be getting it a birthday gift…

The back story:

Around the time I turned 22, I started getting severe headaches whenever I bent over, insert the appropriate gay jokes here, those headaches lead to frequent visits to my doctor. After several years of unsuccessful treatments, I switched to a new doctor who sent me in for CT-Scan; a few neurologist visits later and I was diagnosed with an Arnold Chiari Malformation. My brain was getting stuck on a bone in my skull, like a cork in a wine bottle, blocking the flow of spinal fluid before eventually, painfully, popping back into place.

Jumping ahead, I had neurosurgery to widen the passageway by removing part of my skull. The widening part was successful, but sewing me back up didn’t go so well, and I was left with multiple cerebral spinal fluid leaks. Over the next few years, my doctors tried a risky procedure to patch the leak, but gave up after the 3rd attempt. Since the first surgery, I’ve had a Spinal Headache; the more active I am, the more spinal fluid I leak. The lower the spinal fluid pressure, the more intense the headaches and the sideeffects. At best, it's dull throbbing pain that radiates from the base of the skull, at worst, the impact of gently laying my head on a soft pillow feels like getting smacked in the skull with a baseball bat.

Doctors gave up on fixing the problem, and focused on the symptoms, eventually leading to a 15/day Tylenol 3, that lasted a few years. Tired of being a medicated zombie, and dealing with all the sideeffects of the Tylenol 3, I started looking into other options. My doctor at the pain clinic prescribed Synthetic THC, a lab created version of marijuana cannabinoid. It worked somewhat successfully, but I still needed to use stronger opiates to manage the more intense headaches. Months later I was at a friend's birthday party and my headache was getting intense; my friend knew I was taking synthetic THC, and offered to light a joint up for me to see if that would help. I never used real marijuana before, only the synthetized THC pills, but I decided to give it a try. It worked, quickly and more effectively than the pills; within minutes I was back up on my feet and participating in a game of lazer-tag.

I asked my doctor at the pain clinic about getting a license for medical marijuana, he said it was illegal; I’m not sure if he lied, or if he was just uneducated. I found a compassionate doctor who was comfortable signing me into the medical marijuana program, and I haven't taken a single Tylenol 3 since. Since that time the medical marijuana program in Canada went from the old MMAR (Marihuana Medical Access Regulations) to the new MMPR (Marihuana for Medical Purposes Regulations) system, which meant the end of licensing, and the start of a new, slightly less complex, prescription based system. They still don’t know how to spell marijuana. The new program has lots of drawbacks, but one advantage is that access is less restricted, and can now be prescribed to treat a wider range of ailments.

My biggest issue with Synthetic THC (Nabilone/Cesamet) was that it missed out on the scientific magic of the entourage effect. Marijuana contains over 60 chemicals known as cannabinoids and terpenoids, including the ever popular Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC); these chemicals have an enhanced medicinal effect when taken together. Unlike the body-wrecking opiates I was previously prescribed, you can’t die from an accidental ‘overdose’ of marijuana. Generally, the only scary side-effect is running out of snacks when you have the munchies.

Folks with a ‘Reefer Madness’ view on marijuana tend to be the ones most surprised when I tell them I ingest marijuana daily. From my experience, most medical marijuana patients don’t come across like the stereotypical movie stoner: dazed, red-eyed, and reeking of skunky ganja. I generally stick to marijuana infused edibles rather than smoking or vaping; a coughing with a CSF Leak feels like a hammer to the skull (thankfully CF isn’t contagious!). I infuse butter with marijuana, and use the infused butter to bake cookies; a rather convenient and odor-free way to medicate whenever and wherever. Medicated edibles tend to be most effective for pain management, and reduces the cloudy ‘stoned’ feeling that can make work difficult. At the right dose, edibles kinda feel like your body is being massaged from the inside out, blissful.

The one major downside to medical marijuana: health insurance companies have no problem paying thousands for daily doses of dangerous opiates, and the medications that were required to fight the opiate’s side-effects. However, most won’t cover marijuana. Medical marijuana manages pain effectively, allows me a healthier and more active life, with no negative side-effects; the expense can be hard to swallow, but the quality of life it allows makes it worth it.

Shaun's super cool scull scar!

Shaun's super cool scull scar!

Marijuana research has been stifled by archaic legislation for decades, but those laws are changing, and they’re already discovering the vast powers of the plant. Beyond treating neuropathic pain, marijuana can be used to help treat many other ailments, often without the side-effects of traditional medications. Unfortunately, many doctors aren’t educated about medicinal marijuana; when my doctor retired, and my prescription needed to be renewed, I had to educate my new doctor on why I use medical marijuana, how the MMPR program works, and how to write the prescription. Thankfully most of the legal producers of medical marijuana keep a copy of all the needed medical documents and educational materials listed on their websites.

Having an 8-year-old headache has definitely changed my views on the world, and of myself. I get a lot of people telling me to just take an ibuprofen and smile more (so helpful), and frequent inquiries about my head is feeling (headachy, always headachy). They’re less frequent, but the ones that really catch me off-guard are the folks that say “well, you don’t act sick…” or “you don’t look like you’re in pain…” – Pain, like many illnesses and disorders, looks different for everyone; some people suffer in silence, others get vocal, but it doesn’t really change the experience. Unfortunately, not everything fits on the book cover; so it’s easier just to treat everyone with a little extra kindness.

One thing I noticed since switching medications: People always expressed sympathy when they found out I was taking handfuls of pills daily to help control the pain from my spinal headache. However, when I switched from opiates to medical marijuana people stopped the ‘aww, that’s too bad!’ comments, and I started getting told how lucky I was. Folks always seem to want my prescription for marijuana, but surprisingly, they decline the offer of taking my 8-year-old headache along with it; anyone looking to adopt, I’ll even include a few cookies to go with it?

Be sure to check out Shaun's episode HERE! And if you have any questions surrounding medical marijuana shoot shaun an email!

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