While many people assume that smoking marijuana is risk-free, that isn’t really the case. One unwanted side effect is cannabinoid hyperemesis syndrome (CHS). CHS causes vomiting and pain in heavy marijuana users and there are an estimated 2.7 million Americans who suffer from it. It used to be a rare condition, but because of the recent changes in marijuana laws, there has been an increase in the number of reported cases.
Dr. Eric Lavonas, who is the director of emergency medicine at Denver Health and a spokesman for the American College of Emergency Physicians, reports that “CHS went from being something we didn’t know about and never talked about to a very common problem over the last five years.”
Many marijuana users develop the syndrome after several years of smoking, so they don’t usually make the connection to their habit. The pain and nausea, however, are too severe to ignore. They can also become dehydrated, which can lead to kidney damage.
CHS is often misdiagnosed and mistaken for a psychiatric or anxiety-related syndrome, as well as appendicitis and bowel obstructions. Most CHS sufferers spend thousand of dollars on tests alone, sometimes even undergoing surgery just to discover the cause of their symptoms.
Dr. Joseph Habboushe, who is an assistant professor of emergency at N.Y.U. Langone/Bellevue Medical Center, says “I know patients who have lost their jobs, gone bankrupt from repeatedly seeking medical care, and have been misdiagnosed for years. Marijuana is probably safer than a lot of other things out there, but the discussion about it has been so politicized and the focus has been on the potential benefits, without looking rigorously at what the potential downside might be. No medication is free from side effects.”
The symptoms of CHS don’t usually respond to drug treatment, but many sufferers report that taking hot showers helps relieve the pain and nausea.
There is, however, a sure way to cure CHS: stop using marijuana. While it may be a challenge to convince people to stop, especially after having heard for years that marijuana is actually supposed to relieve nausea, there is no doubt that abstaining from marijuana use will cure CHS.
Others simply won’t want to quit or will find it difficult. Many will continue to suffer from CHS and as legalization continues to spread, doctors suspect that the number of CHS sufferers will continue to rise.