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If there is a condition that cannabis has been proven to help alleviate, it’s chronic pain. Several studies have demonstrated cannabis’s efficacy in turning the dial down on chronic pain, and Cannvas.me interviewed several experts in the field to learn more about how exactly the plant accomplishes such a feat.

Dr. Gregory Smith, author of Medical Cannabis: Science and Clinical Applications and scientific advisor to Green Mountain Health Alliance, explains how the cannabinoids THC and CBD play pivotal roles in managing chronic pain.

“THC works specifically in the brain by interacting with CB1 receptors and turns down the thermostat of pain coming up on our spinal cord. THC tells those receptors to not feel the pain and decrease the intensity of that perception of pain. Then CBD decreases the emotional response to pain.”

He adds that CBD contains anti-inflammatory properties that could also be useful to those afflicted with severe pain.

What about specific types of chronic pain? “Migraines,” Dr. Smith says almost immediately. “It’s the best medication out there for those lengthy migraines, as opposed to one-off headaches.”

His statement is backed by science. In 2016, a study found that, “the frequency of migraine headaches was decreased with medical marijuana use.”1 Researchers found that, when cannabis was tested on migraine patients, the average number of migraine headaches decreased from 10.4 per month to 4.6.

Some have posited that the plant was an ancient remedy for headaches: Documents from the Mesopotamia region dating to the second millennium BCE, for instance, advise the use of cannabis to “bind the temples.”2

The evidence for cannabis to help alleviate other chronic pain has been piling up recently. A Dutch study found pharmaceutical-grade cannabis with high THC content was effective in treating the musculoskeletal pain caused by fibromyalgia.3 

Another study in 2017 found that chronic pain patients using opioids were weaned off the drugs once they started using cannabis to manage their pain.4 Jacob Vigil, associate professor in the department of psychology at the University of New Mexico, explains, “Having legal access to cannabis reduced opioid use among 80 percent of those who enrolled in the study, and 40 percent ceased using opioids altogether.”

Can cannabis help alleviate chronic pain?
He also points out that THC is often the most helpful cannabinoid to relieve chronic pain, while CBD has been found to, “not be associated with pain relief,” despite its anti-inflammatory traits.

Dr. Lydia Hatcher of the Chronic Pain Clinic at McMaster University clarifies that cannabis can be effective for chronic pain but not acute pain, such as when someone injures themself in an accident. She says some acute pain patients may find relief in cannabis due to other components in cannabis, such as terpenes. “Just like how someone can feel relaxed by smelling lavender, for example, certain terpenes might do the same for some patients,” she notes.

As for consumption methods, Dr. Hatcher says inhaling cannabis can deliver instant relief to chronic-pain patients, but the downside is that its effects wear off within a couple hours. Cannabis edibles could be helpful for patients who require pain alleviation over several hours, and who also want to avoid the consequences of inhalation.

Can cannabis help alleviate chronic pain?
Some newcomers to cannabis may be unsure if this treatment option will have them addicted to the plant. “Not so fast,” says Dr. Smith. “First, cannabis addiction only affects around nine percent of cannabis users, and it is nothing like an opioid addiction. Some have compared it to being addicted to coffee: to wean off it, you might be irritable and get a headache or two, and the recommended treatment is just time. Not rehab.” 

  1. "Effects of Medical Marijuana on Migraine Headache Frequency in an Adult Population" https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26749285
  2. "Everything You Need to Know About Using Weed for Headaches" https://tonic.vice.com/en_us/article/j5a4by/everything-you-need-to-know-about-using-weed-for-headaches
  3. "Pharmaceutical-grade cannabis with THC shown to relieve fibromyalgia pain" https://www.thegrowthop.com/cannabis-health/cannabis-medical/pharmaceutical-grade-cannabis-with-thc-shown-to-relieve-fibromyalgia-pain
  4. "Associations between medical cannabis and prescription opioid use in chronic pain patients" https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0187795

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