Rare Disorders Require Unusual Care

By Roger Chriss, Columnist

A lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of listing cannabis as a Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substances Act is underway in New York City.

The plaintiffs, including an Iraq War veteran with PTSD and a 12-year-old girl with a rare seizure disorder, are claiming that the government’s decision to classify marijuana as an illegal controlled substance is irrational, unconstitutional and motivated by politics, not science.

The position of the federal government is simple: Marijuana has no accepted medical use and poses a significant risk of abuse and addiction.  But the situation is complex and emblematic of a larger issue – which is the medical treatment of people with rare and incurable disorders.

Modern medicine is an increasingly precise undertaking involving thousands of possible diagnoses, many with multiple treatment options.

There is a wide range of disorders that involve crippling anxiety, including post-traumatic stress disorder. There are also many seizure disorders, including conditions like Dravet syndrome and Lennox-Gastaut syndrome, that are extremely difficult to treat.

In the same fashion, there are hundreds of disorders that cause debilitating pain that persists for months, years or even a lifetime, including interstitial cystitis, Complex Regional Pain Syndrome, and trigeminal neuralgia.


Many of these disorders are rare and entirely unfamiliar to non-specialists. But even when the disorder itself is not so rare, its presentation may be rare in terms of severity. Fibromyalgia and osteoarthritis are common enough, but still can be debilitating in some cases.

As a result, research on such disorders is thin and clinical trials are few and far between. For instance, there are no studies of cannabis for small fiber neuropathy and only a handful on cannabis for cluster headaches. When trials do exist, they are easily criticized as being statistically underpowered because of the small number of participants.

Moreover, standard treatments do not necessarily work for everyone. Neuropathic pain sometimes responds well to neuroleptic drugs like gabapentin (Neurontin), but as a recent Cochrane review found, over half of those treated with gabapentin will not have worthwhile pain relief and may experience adverse side effects.

Usual Rules Don’t Apply

Many people with rare disorders are often medically atypical in other important ways. Patients with Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, for example, are famously intolerant of a wide range of medications. So the usual rules about medications may not even apply to people with rare disorders.

All of this creates obvious clinical difficulties. It is not easy to develop standards of care for rare disorders. General recommendations are based on limited clinical experience and testing, often with people whose reactions to common, generally well-tolerated medications are unpredictable and potentially dangerous. Thus, medications that are controversial may still be useful for people with rare disorders, especially if they are refractory to common treatments.

The opioid crisis has been national news for years, with many states, insurers like Kaiser Permanente and Intermountain Health, and drug store chains like CVS moving to reduce prescribing levels. But for some conditions, opioid medication remains one of the few viable alternatives.

For instance, the Mayo Clinic recognizes the value of opioids for refractory restless leg syndrome, calling them “a mainstay in the management of these patients.” And the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke acknowledges the complexity of neuropathic pain when it lists opioids and anticonvulsants as potentially useful.

The situation is similar for medical cannabis. The federal government gave marijuana Schedule I status in the 1970s, but many states legalized medical cannabis in the past two decades in part to deal with rare disorders that do not respond to conventional treatment. Clinical research is justifying this.  A 2017 trial of cannabidiol for drug-resistant seizures in Dravet Syndrome found that cannabis based medication reduced the frequency of convulsive seizures.

In other words, rare disorders involving problems such as severe pain, seizures or anxiety require highly specialized care using all available options. In many cases, people with these disorders have failed first-line therapies and even second-line therapies. They are facing choices that do not occur in everyday clinical practice but now have to be considered.

Thus, the issue here goes beyond rescheduling cannabis or reining in opioid prescribing. The average person has little if any medical need for these substances. But medicine has to address the needs of all people, and healthcare laws and regulations cannot ignore the reality that some people are living with challenging and rare disorders.

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Roger Chriss lives with Ehlers Danlos syndrome and is a proud member of the Ehlers-Danlos Society. Roger is a technical consultant in Washington state, where he specializes in mathematics and research.

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.