Cannabinoid hyperemesis syndrome: potential mechanisms for the benefit of capsaicin and hot water hydrotherapy in treatment

John R Richards, Jeff M. Lapoint, Guillermo Burillo-Putze

Research output: Contribution to journalReview article

15 Scopus citations


Introduction: Cannabinoid hyperemesis syndrome is a clinical disorder that has become more prevalent with increasing use of cannabis and synthetic cannabinoids, and which is difficult to treat. Standard antiemetics commonly fail to alleviate the severe nausea and vomiting characteristic of the syndrome. Curiously, cannabinoid hyperemesis syndrome patients often report dramatic relief of symptoms with hot showers and baths, and topical capsaicin. Objectives: In this review, we detail the pharmacokinetics and pharmacodynamics of capsaicin and explore possible mechanisms for its beneficial effect, including activation of transient receptor potential vanilloid 1 and neurohumoral regulation. Putative mechanisms responsible for the benefit of hot water hydrotherapy are also investigated. Methods: An extensive search of PubMed, OpenGrey, and Google Scholar from inception to April 2017 was performed to identify known and theoretical thermoregulatory mechanisms associated with the endocannabinoid system. The searches resulted in 2417 articles. These articles were screened for relevant mechanisms behind capsaicin and heat activation having potential antiemetic effects. References from the selected articles were also hand-searched. A total of 137 articles were considered relevant and included. Capsaicin: Topical capsaicin is primarily used for treatment of neuropathic pain, but it has also been used successfully in some 20 cases of cannabinoid hyperemesis syndrome. The pharmacokinetics and pharmacodynamics of capsaicin as a transient receptor potential vanilloid 1 agonist may explain this effect. Topical capsaicin has a longer half-life than oral administration, thus its potential duration of benefit is longer. Capsaicin and transient receptor potential vanilloid 1: Topical capsaicin binds and activates the transient receptor potential vanilloid 1 receptor, triggering influx of calcium and sodium, as well as release of inflammatory neuropeptides leading to transient burning, stinging, and itching. This elicits a novel type of desensitization analgesia. Transient receptor potential vanilloid 1 receptors also respond to noxious stimuli, such as heat (>43 °C), acids (pH <6), pain, change in osmolarity, and endovanilloids. The action of topical capsaicin may mimic the effect of heat-activation of transient receptor potential vanilloid 1. Endocannabinoid system and transient receptor potential vanilloid 1: Cannabinoid hyperemesis syndrome may result from a derangement in the endocannabinoid system secondary to chronic exogenous stimulation. The relief of cannabinoid hyperemesis syndrome symptoms from heat and use of transient receptor potential vanilloid 1 agonists suggests a complex interrelation between the endocannabinoid system and transient receptor potential vanilloid 1. Temperature regulation: Hot water hydrotherapy is a mainstay of self-treatment for cannabinoid hyperemesis syndrome patients. This may be explained by heat-induced transient receptor potential vanilloid 1 activation. “Sensocrine” antiemetic effects: Transient receptor potential vanilloid 1 activation by heat or capsaicin results in modulation of tachykinins, somatostatin, pituitary adenylate-cyclase activating polypeptide, and calcitonin gene-related peptide as well as histaminergic, cholinergic, and serotonergic transmission. These downstream effects represent further possible explanations for transient receptor potential vanilloid 1-associated antiemesis. Conclusions: These complex interactions between the endocannabinoid systems and transient receptor potential vanilloid 1, in the setting of cannabinoid receptor desensitization, may yield important clues into the pathophysiology and treatment of cannabinoid hyperemesis syndrome. This knowledge can provide clinicians caring for these patients with additional treatment options that may reduce length of stay, avoid unnecessary imaging and laboratory testing, and decrease the use of potentially harmful medications such as opioids.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)15-24
Number of pages10
JournalClinical Toxicology
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2 2018



  • Cannabinoid hyperemesis
  • cannabis
  • capsaicin
  • heat
  • hot shower
  • TRPV1

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Toxicology

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