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Medical Marijuana and Chronic Pain

By on March 11, 2013

Summary (click to view)

  • Chronic pain affects 10% of the Canadian and US population
  • Chronic pain is defined as pain that last over 6 months or past the expected recovery time
  • Chronic pain may be a symptom of a variety of underlying conditions
  • Scientific evidence has found medical marijuana to have powerful pain-relieving properties
  • 84% of medical marijuana users in Canada use marijuana for treatment of pain
  • Studies show that medical marijuana is of equal or greater effectiveness than traditional opioid treatments
  • Research suggests that a combination of medical marijuana and opioid treatments may provide the greatest amount of relief from chronic pain 
  • TruthOnPot.com – One of the most common uses of medical marijuana is for the treatment of chronic pain. A Canadian survey published in 2012 found that 84% of medical marijuana patients indicated using marijuana for pain relief. Likewise, research has also shown that lifetime chronic pain is strongly linked with a higher rate of marijuana use.

    What Is Chronic Pain?

    Chronic pain is a major public health concern, affecting approximately 10% of the Canadian and US population. Chronic pain is defined as pain lasting for more than 6 months or extending past the expected recovery time for an injury or medical intervention. Experts say that chronic pain is a highly variable condition that may be a result of a number of underlying causes. As such, conventional treatments vary in effectiveness and there remains a significant group of patients for whom traditional pharmaceuticals are ineffective.

    How Can Marijuana Help?

    Chronic pain affects 1 in 10 individuals in Canada and the United States. Image source

    Overwhelming scientific evidence has shown that cannabinoids – the medical compounds found in marijuana – have powerful pain-relieving (analgesic) properties. Cannabinoids exert their analgesic properties through their interaction with the cannabinoid receptors of the body’s endocannabinoid system.

    Cannabinoid receptors are found throughout the human body, but are most prominent in the brain and spinal cord. Studies show that when cannabinoids bind to the receptors in nerve and brain cells, they are able to alter the way these cells perceive painful stimulus, ultimately reducing the intensity of pain that is interpreted by the brain.

    Furthermore, research also shows that when skin or flesh is cut or injured, endocannabinoids – cannabinoids produced by the human body – are released to help modulate the pain associated with such injuries. As a result, experts believe that the endocannabinoid system may act as a biological mechanism for controlling pain in the human body, providing a unique opportunity for therapeutic applications.

    Numerous studies over the past few years have found cannabinoids to be an effective analgesic for patients who suffer from pain associated with a variety of medical conditions including:

  • HIV
  • Cancer
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Migraines

    Studies have also found cannabinoids to be beneficial in the treatment of both acute and chronic pain.

    Cannabinoids vs. Opioids

    Most patients who suffer from chronic pain are familiar with the group of drugs known as opioids. Interestingly, experts note that human civilization has been using both opioid and cannabinoid-derived medications to treat pain for thousands of years. Opioids are the most widely prescribed treatment for pain relief worldwide, eliciting their effects through biological mechanisms that are independent of the endocannabinoid system.

    Although the majority of health professionals continue to overlook cannabinoids as a potential treatment for chronic pain, recent studies have found these compounds to be of comparable effectiveness to opioids in models of acute pain and to be of even greater effectiveness than opioids in models of chronic pain. Although opioids remain as the most widely prescribed treatment for chronic pain, cannabinoids are believed to possess a number of advantages over traditional opioid treatments.

    The greatest concern with the use of opioids is the risk of serious side effects (including death) as well as abuse and dependence. The opioid system is directly linked with breathing and, when taken in large doses, opioids can cause death due to lack of oxygen. Interestingly, studies show that cannabinoids can prevent the development of opioid tolerance and withdrawal symptoms by interrupting signals sent by the opioid receptor systems, thereby reducing both cravings for opioids and the severity of withdrawal. As such, experts believe that medical marijuana and its derivatives hold the potential to both relieve suffering from chronic pain and to reduce the risk of side effects that are associated with the use of opioid medications.

    Recently, researchers have taken a strong interest in the interactions between cannabinoids and opioids and have found evidence supporting the fact that a combination of both forms of treatment may provide the greatest amount of relief to patients with chronic pain. A study published in 2011 by lead author Dr. Abrams found that patients who took morphine and oxycodone experienced greater pain relief after 5 days of concurrent medical marijuana treatment.

    Clinical Applications

    As of today, the therapeutic potential of medical marijuana and cannabinoids for the treatment of chronic pain represents one of the most well-documented findings of modern cannabinoid research. Health professionals and patients alike are becoming increasingly aware of the safer and more effective treatment for chronic pain that medical marijuana provides.

    Unfortunately, despite the proactive measures taken by a number of countries to allow patients access to medical marijuana treatments, the vast majority of patients worldwide are still prohibited from accessing medical marijuana and cannabinoid-based medicines. In spite of these political barriers, the evidence for the therapeutic potential of cannabinoids in the treatment of chronic pain is strong. Patients can only hope that lawmakers will adopt a more scientific approach to addressing the issue of medical marijuana in the coming future.