Cannabis has been used for a variety of medical conditions since the Chinese began using it around 2900 B.C. Many civilizations have since found a use for cannabis for a variety of conditions, including joint pain, muscle spasms, gout, malaria, constipation, rheumatic pain, and female reproductive tract disorders. The plant was also used in conjunction with wine to anesthetize patients during surgical procedures.
Approximately 100 million adults in the U.S. alone deal with chronic pain, which is one of the factors behind the recent opioid epidemic. In 2014 alone, U.S. pharmacies dispensed 245 million prescriptions for opioid pain relievers. Of these, between 9.6 million and 11.5 million people were prescribed long-term opioid therapy. While opioids are effective for acute pain – such as immediately after surgery or an accident – they are not optimal for treating chronic pain. After just five days of prescription opioid use, the likelihood that you’ll develop a long-term dependence on these drugs rises steeply.
Cannabis, on the other hand, is nowhere near as dangerous or addictive, and it can serve at least two important roles in pain management. It provides relief from the pain itself, and it can minimize nausea associated with taking opioid drugs, as well as nausea, vomiting, and dizziness that often accompany severe pain. The one area where studies have found that cannabis might be sub-optimal as compared to opioids is the chance of cognitive impairment.
While further evidence is needed to definitively say that cannabis is an ideal treatment for chronic pain, there have been some promising studies. One study by the National Academies Committee on the Health Effects of Marijuana concluded that there is “conclusive or substantial evidence” that cannabis is effective for the treatment of chronic pain. Another assessed how well the cannabis component CBD works to relieve chronic pain and concluded that CBD was effective in overall pain management without adverse side effects. They also noted that CBD was beneficial in treating insomnia related to chronic pain. A 2016 study looked at the use of CBD in rats with arthritis and concluded that it reduced inflammation and overall pain in the rats’ affected joints without side effects. The National Cancer Institute (NCI) has also found CBD to be a possible option for relieving symptoms caused by chemotherapy.
One possible explanation for the effectiveness in treating pain is that some of the active components of the cannabis plant are similar to chemicals that appear naturally in our bodies. These chemicals are responsible for keeping critical biological functions in balance, such as sleep, appetite, the immune system, and pain.
Additional research is essential, but it’s clear that at least in some cases, cannabis can help relieve chronic pain. If a patient and his doctor find that other methods have proven ineffective, cannabis is a reasonable next step.
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