Medical Marijuana: Mishaps, Money & Maybes, Part 1
On the evening of April 24, 2019, I took my first vape puffs of medical cannabis. It's not the first time I've ever tried marijuana in my life, however (don't arrest me, please)--but vaping, yes. And I wasn't totally sure how to do it, nor was I sure if medical cannabis would help my RA or improve my health in any way.
The first time I attempted to vape the very strong-smelling oil, I read and reread the directions included in the materials I received from my local dispensary. Along with my starter pack of oil cartridges, I was given a small, dark gray, cool-looking vaping gadget that has a battery built into it--a CCELL Palm, if anybody's interested. Oh my God, I have smoking and drug paraphernalia now, I thought. But whatever, who cares. It's legitimate. I'm not doing bong rips in my basement or anything (don't ask how I know what that is).
Trying medical cannabis for RA symptoms
Anyway, I held the smooth, minimalist vape battery thing (the Palm) in my hand and raised it to my mouth. Putting my lips around the cartridge, like sucking on a straw, I sucked (puffed) the cannabis oil/smoke into my mouth for about 2-3 seconds, inhaled a normal breath through my mouth (as instructed by my pamphlet), then blew the remaining smoke out through my mouth. Easy, right? Not exactly.
Experiencing coughing and chest tightness
Puff, puff turned into COUGH, COUGH. Embarrassingly, the first two times I tried vaping, I doubled over in long and painful fits of coughing. Never a cigarette smoker, nor a vaper, I obviously didn't know what I was doing. Plus, the taste was awful and my throat and lungs didn't seem to like it much either. But I kept at it, and I managed to do it a few more times without coughing. Yes! Great! I'm a vaper now! Maybe?
Not very long after those first puffs, I noticed an uncomfortable and strange tightness in my chest. I also felt like I couldn't take a full, deep breath. Oh, no, what is this? I tried to ignore the tight clenching and stabbing in my chest, thinking maybe my lungs were just sensitive to this cannabis vape juice. They're used to enjoying clean, fresh air all the time, not stinky weed oil.
Recurring chest tightness and pain
During the next few days I resumed vaping, trying out the different cannabis strains I was given in my little starter pack. With much relief, I figured out how to do it without having coughing attacks, yet that weird chest tightness and pain was still there. It never went away and it seemed to get worse after I vaped. Anxious, with a touch of hypochondria thrown in, I decided to call the dispensary and talk to one of the pharmacists about these new symptoms.
Talking with the dispensary pharmacist
Speaking over the phone, the dispensary pharmacist assured me that what I was feeling in my chest was simply due to my lungs getting used to the vaping--since I wasn't a smoker. He suggested that I take shorter puffs to see if that helped (sucking in for one second instead of 2-3). I waited a couple of days and tried vaping again, this time following the pharmacist's puff advice. My chest clenching-stabbing was still there. Even during the days I didn't vape, the chest pain didn't go away.
Visiting a doctor at urgent care
Even more anxious and uncomfortable now, I decided to go to urgent care and ask a doctor about it. The doctor listened to my lungs and checked me over, including drawing blood to test for lung blood clots. Everything seemed fine (no clots!), except for this awful feeling in my chest that wouldn't go away. The doctor suspected that I had developed bronchial spasms from the vaping, meaning that my bronchial tubes were inflamed. Oh, more inflammation, great.
The doctor then prescribed a very high, yet short dose of steroids--a prednisone burst pack. I was happy to have an answer for my symptoms, yet I was also immediately upset at the thought of upping my prednisone dosage to 60mg a day. Sixty milligrams?! I'd have the entire contents of my fridge devoured in about 10 minutes, I guessed. But if steroids were needed to get rid of this terrible feeling and pain, I would take them.
The prednisone didn't work.
Where was this chest pain and discomfort coming from?
A very long and uncomfortable trip to the ER came next. My chest discomfort was actual pain all the time now and I became somewhat paranoid that I was having a heart attack or something. So, on a Friday evening, I reluctantly dragged myself to the ER hoping to get some answers. Tests were performed: EKG, chest X-ray, bloodwork, physical exam. The verdict? All normal. What was wrong with me?
The ER doctor felt pretty sure that my symptoms were G.I.-related, and not bronchial spasms or anything to do with my lungs or respiratory system. Not a heart attack, either. This was all good news, of course. She suspected the culprit to be acid reflux since I have a long history of that, heartburn, and GERD. She also recommended that I have the upper endoscopy test that my primary doctor had ordered and to follow up with a G.I. specialist.
Instructions to stop using medical cannabis
I was also instructed to totally stop using medical cannabis. After giving up vaping, I had tried a starter pack of oral capsules of cannabis from my dispensary. But after my ER visit, I decided to completely give up using all forms of the stuff for the time being. It couldn't just be a coincidence that my chest pain started the same night I first vaped. Could it? Who knows.
Results from the endoscopy
The endoscopy went fine and the results wound up being normal. This was good news, too, because I certainly didn't want any ulcers or tumors to show up in my esophagus or stomach. Normal, normal, normal. Was I making this whole thing up? No. The discomfort and pain was real. The other clue that my problem was stomach-related was that the pain got worse after eating something.
Does medical cannabis work for me?
The chest pain finally went away
So what happened? After a week or so of very careful eating (or not eating, I should say) and diligently taking 40mg of omeprazole twice a day, my chest pain finally subsided and went away. Hooray! What a relief. And what a literal pain and interruption in my already pain-filled life. Was the acid reflux storm triggered from vaping the cannabis oil? From the violent coughing? Nobody can say for sure, especially since there is not much research data or real-world patient evidence on medical cannabis.
Maybe I'll try again in the future
Disappointed and wondering if I'd ever be able to successfully try using medical cannabis for my relentless RA pain, I decided to take a little break from it. Plus, not only was acid potentially eating a hole into my esophagus, but the cost of medical marijuana was eating a sizable hole into my bank account--even just starting out.
Medical marijuana is not cheap and insurance won't cover it. But if it works and truly helps my pain (and maybe my poor sleep), I'm willing to put myself through the stress, inconvenience, and financial cost of this supposed "miracle" pain drug. A lot of people find that it really does help, so can't it also please work for me?
When was your last flare?