Case Report

Cannabinoid Hyperemesis Syndrome

The convergence of legislative efforts, increasing prevalence, and tetrahydrocannabinol toxicity make this difficult-to-diagnose condition important to consider.

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Given the recent rise in marijuana legalization efforts and an overall increase in the prevalence of marijuana use, it is becoming increasingly important to recognize conditions that are associated with its use. Data obtained from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health show the prevalence of marijuana use within the past month among those surveyed was 8.4% in 2014. This represents a 35% increase from the same study in 2002. Based on this survey, 2.5 million people (or ~7,000 per day) used marijuana for the first time.1

Following the liberalization of marijuana in Colorado, the prevalence of presentation to the emergency department (ED) for cyclic vomiting nearly doubled.2 During the 2016 election season, several states included legislation that increased access to marijuana on the ballot, most of which passed. There are now 28 states plus the District of Columbia that permit medical marijuana usage, and 8 of those states and the District of Columbia have laws allowing for recreational use of marijuana.3

First described in a case series by Allen and colleagues in 2004, cannabinoid hyperemesis syndrome (CHS) is indicated by recurrent episodes of nausea and vomiting with vague abdominal pain and compulsive hot bathing in the setting of chronic, often daily, cannabis use.4 A case of a middle-aged veteran with chronic marijuana use and recurrent, self-limited nausea and vomiting is presented here.

Case Presentation

A 45-year-old man presented to the ED with a 5-day history of persistent nausea and vomiting that began abruptly. The symptoms had been constant since onset, resulting in very little oral intake. The patient reported no hematemesis or coffee ground emesis. He noted a drop in his urine output over the previous 2 days. He also reported abdominal pain associated with the nausea. The patient characterized his pain as “dull and achy” diffuse pain that was partially relieved with emesis. His bowel movements had been regular, and he reported no diarrhea, fever, chills, or other constitutional symptoms. Additional 10-point review of systems was otherwise negative. The patient reported smoking marijuana multiple times daily for many years. The patient reported he had not used alcohol for several months.

A physical exam showed a pale and diaphoretic patient. Vital signs were significant for mild hypertension (150/75), but the patient was afebrile with a normal heart rate. An abdominal exam revealed a nontender, nondistended abdomen with no signs of rebound or guarding. The remainder of the examination was unremarkable. An initial workup showed a mild elevation of serum creatinine to 1.36 mg/dL (baseline is 1.10 mg/dL). Other workups, including complete blood count (CBC) with differential, complete metabolic panel, lipase, amylase, and urine analysis, were all unremarkable.

The patient’s urine drug screen (UDS) was positive for tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). A computed tomography (CT) scan of his abdomen and pelvis with contrast was unremarkable. The patient was admitted for his inability to tolerate oral intake and dehydration and treated supportively with IV fluids and antiemetics.

Overnight, the nursing staff reported that the patient took multiple, prolonged hot showers. Upon further questioning, he reported the hot showers significantly helped the nausea and abdominal pain. He had learned this behavior after experiencing previous episodes of self-limited nausea, vomiting, and abdominal pain.

Extensive review of his medical record revealed that the patient had, in fact, presented to the ED with similar symptoms 11 times in the prior 8 years. He was admitted on 8 occasions over that time frame. The typical hospital course included supportive care with antiemetics and IV fluids. The patient’s symptoms typically resolved within 24 to 72 hours of hospitalization. Previous evaluations included additional unremarkable CT imaging of the abdomen and pelvis. The patient also had received 2 esophagogastroduodenoscopies (EGDs), one 2 years prior and the other 5 years prior. Both EGDs showed only mild gastritis. On every check during the previous 8 years, the patient’s UDS was positive for THC.

Most of his previous admissions were attributed to viral gastroenteritis due to the self-limited nature of the symptoms. Other admissions were attributed to alcohol-induced gastritis. However, after abstaining from alcohol for long periods, the patient had continued recurrence of the symptoms and increased frequency of presentations to the ED.

The characteristics, signs, and symptoms of CHS were discussed with the patient. The patient strongly felt as though these symptoms aligned with his clinical course over the prior 8 years. At time of writing, the patient had gone 20 months without requiring hospitalization; however, he had a recent relapse of marijuana use and subsequently required hospitalization.

Related: Kratom: A New Product in an Expanding Substance Abuse Market


As in this case, CHS often presents with refractory, self-limited nausea and vomiting with vague abdominal pain that is temporarily relieved by hot baths or showers. In the largest case series, it was noted the average age was 32 years, and the majority of subjects used marijuana at least weekly for > 2 years.5 Many studies categorize CHS into 3 phases: prodromal, hyperemetic, and recovery.

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