Chronic pain is the most common reason people turn to medical marijuana. According to a 2019 study, two-thirds of medical cannabis patients in the US listed pain as their qualifying condition.
Thanks to the lifting of cannabis prohibitions and advances in medical research, we now have a solid body of clinical evidence that medical marijuana preparations work for various types of chronic pain.
That research is welcome news for sufferers for several reasons. Firstly, chronic pain conditions don’t always respond to standard treatment. Secondly, marijuana has less serious side effects than many prescription pain medications, including a much lower risk of addiction and almost zero risk of fatal overdose.
How Cannabis Works on Chronic Pain
Scientists and doctors only really started to understand how cannabis interacts with the human body in the 1990s.
It was then that researchers discovered that cannabinoids, chemical compounds like THC and CBD found in the cannabis plant, are also produced naturally by the human body.
Soon thereafter, scientists mapped out an entire system of receptors in the body (the endocannabinoid system) that reacts only to cannabinoids, both those produced by the plant (phytocannabinoids) and those produced by the body (endocannabinoids).
In the years since, medical researchers discovered that the endocannabinoid system plays a major role in regulating key functions of the body, including mood, metabolism, learning and memory, sleep, immunity — and pain.
Today, we know that endocannabinoid receptors are involved in regulating two of the major types of pain, and how our bodies perceive them: nociceptive pain (caused by actual harm to the body, such as a burn) and neuropathic pain (caused by damage to nerves that relay pain signals).
Endocannabinoid receptors have been discovered in various parts of the peripheral and central nervous system, and in almost every aspect of the pain pathway. Other endocannabinoid receptors have been found to play a role in reducing and regulating inflammatory pain.
Medical Studies on Chronic Pain and Cannabis
Dozens of studies have been conducted on how, and whether cannabis and cannabinoids is an effective treatment for pain, including chronic pain.
- A 2015 systematic review of 28 such studies concluded that “there was moderate-quality evidence to support the use of cannabinoids for the treatment of chronic pain.”
- A 2010 study on cancer pain that wasn’t responding to regular opioid medications, found that a treatment which combined CBD and THC resulted in a significant reduction of pain. In that study, 43% of subjects reported a 30% or greater improvement. This is an especially notable finding because it indicates that drugs containing multiple cannabinoids may be more effective than isolated active ingredients.
- Another highly-cited study from 2008, examining the effects of smoking cannabis for neuropathic pain, found that using resulted in significant pain relief.
- A 2006 study by British researchers examining the effects of Sativex, a cannabis-based drug, found that it led to significant improvement on pain associated with rheumatoid arthritis.
- Another highly cited study from 2008 examined the effect of Nabilone, a THC-based drug, on fibromyalgia patients. It found that the treatment resulted in significant improvements in pain and quality of life.
- A 2016 study looked at the benefits of medical cannabis in people with various kinds of treatment-resistant chronic pain. Researchers found that marijuana not only reduced pain but also significantly reduced the use of prescription opioid medications.
- Another 2016 study looked at the use of medically prescribed cannabis in patients with chronic migraine headaches. Over 85% of the patients reported having fewer migraines per month (average of 10.4 down to 4.6).
In conclusion, more clinical trials should still be done but there is solid scientific evidence that cannabis is effective in the treatment of chronic pain. Its low side-effect profile makes it an attractive option.
Potential side effects of cannabis use
While cannabis has been found to be an effective treatment option for chronic pain, especially in cases that don’t respond to conventional medicine, it’s not without downsides.
Most notably, THC, one of the active therapeutic ingredients, is psychotropic and can lead to cognitive side effects such as impaired memory, anxiety, and euphoria. It can also trigger psychosis in some individuals. CBD-rich preparations, such as CBD oil, however, are not intoxicating.
Cannabis-based treatments can also cause other side effects including drowsiness, fatigue, dry mouth, and changes in appetite.
All in all, however, these side effects are minor and marijuana is a remarkably safe substance, especially when compared to the pharmaceutical drugs normally prescribed to treat pain. There have been no verified cases of death caused by cannabis.
When considering the use of cannabis for chronic pain, or any other medical condition, it is important to consult with your doctor before initiating therapy.
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