Cannabis and Pain

How Marijuana Helps Soothe the Symptoms of Chronic Pain
Reading Time: 4 minutes

Contributor: Asia Mayfield

Medical researchers suspect cannabis can relieve pain. However, the science is still murky. Nobody knows exactly how cannabinoids (THC, CBD, etc.) affect the body. Finding the right strain is complicated. To understand the role cannabis plays in reducing pain, you need to have a good idea of what type of pain you’re dealing with.

What is Pain?

There are three different types of pain:

  • Central pain
  • Neuropathic pain
  • Nociceptive pain

Pain can result from a physical injury, like being punched (or kicked), a ravaging illness, or a mental disorder. The causes can overlap.

Studies Reveal How Marijuana Can Specifically Help With Pain Relief

Your brain is constantly receiving signals from the rest of your body. These allow you to maintain a sense of your physical self, and your surroundings. When you’re in pain, your brain receives the signal that something is wrong.

However, that signal is just one of many. If your toe is broken, but you’re standing in a burning building, you’re not going to hesitate. You’re going to immediately rush outside. You may not even feel pain, at first.

Compare that, to stumbling and breaking your toe after you walk home following a fight with your partner. In that case, the pain might be amplified.

Central Pain

Central pain doesn’t necessarily have a cause. You know something is wrong, but you don’t know what it is. A common example of this is fibromyalgia, a disorder characterized by chronic pain. Despite numerous studies, it’s not clear what causes fibromyalgia. Patients suffering from central pain could potentially experience significant relief from cannabis. The problem with turning to pharmaceutical medications, like opioids, is they could be setting themselves up to become dependent on these drugs for the rest of their lives. Most of the studies looking at cannabis and central pain have looked at fibromyalgia. One study that examined 26 patients determined that: “Medical cannabis treatment had a significant favorable effect on patients with fibromyalgia, with few adverse effects.”

Neuropathic Pain

Neuropathic pain arises from damage to the body’s central nervous system. It’s notoriously difficult to treat, with patients sometimes complaining of debilitating discomfort. It can result from physical trauma or disease. Chemotherapy, for example, can cause neuropathic pain, as it damages many healthy cells.

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Doctors struggle to come up with treatment plans for neuropathic pain patients because the pain doesn’t have a typical cause. Reducing inflammation won’t be enough.

Back pain is one of the most common medical issues plaguing Americans. Sciatica is a type of pain that results from a pinched nerve in the spine. Cannabis has been found to help patients with sciatica.

THC and CBD both affect the body’s endocannabinoid system, latching onto CB1 receptors. These receptors are believed to influence your pain level.

CBD or THC

CBD and THC are, by far, the most abundant cannabinoids. They’re likely responsible for cannabis’ pain-relieving effects. THC is psychoactive, while CBD is valued purely for its potential health benefits.

It’s believed that THC and CBD both have anti-inflammatory properties. In a 2007 study looking at rats, researchers found that CBD “has substantial anti-inflammatory and immunomodulatory effects. This study investigated its therapeutic potential on neuropathic (sciatic nerve chronic constriction) and inflammatory pain…”

There’s growing interest in CBD. Patients can consume it, without worrying about becoming intoxicated. THC, because of it’s psychotropic properties, can make people feel nervous and anxious.

Studies indicate that an even ratio of CBD and THC can be very effective.

Treating Pain With Opioids and Cannabis

When you struggle with chronic pain, it can be hard to go about your daily life. Your doctor may prescribe opiates to help you cope. These medications can be incredibly effective, especially in the short-term. However, they’re far from being problem-free. Your body needs an increasingly higher dose of the same medication for it to continue to be effective. Addiction and physical dependence are real possibilities with this route.

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Cannabis, however, is being pursued as a potentially safer option. The plant has a gentler effect on the body than opiates.

According to Vanessa Minervini of the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, there is significant evidence backing up the idea that “opioid-cannabinoid mixtures that are effective for treating pain do not have greater, and in some cases have less, adverse effects compared with larger doses of each drug alone…”

If patients can use cannabis instead of opiates, it reduces the risk of becoming addicted.

“The current opioid epidemic underscores the need for safe and effective pharmacotherapies for treating pain,” said Minervini. “Combining opioid receptor agonists with drugs that relieve pain through actions at non-opioid mechanisms (for example, cannabinoid receptors) could be a useful strategy for reducing the dose of opioids needed to achieve pain relief.”

The amount of patient-reported data far exceeds the amount that’s actually been recorded by scientists and physicians, however.

In 2018, the University of Washington’s Alcohol and Drug Abuse Institute found that “relief from pain is by far the most frequent condition reported by medical cannabis (MC) patients… many MC patients indicate that they have been substituting all or some of their prescribed opiate-based medications with cannabis.”

Starting Treatment

There are a few drawbacks with most of the studies that have looked deeply in cannabis. One of the most glaring flaws relates to supply. Researchers typically don’t have access to the same cannabis products that consumers are actually buying. Most studies have worked with synthetic THC. Also, there has been very little variability in consumption methods.

Smoking a joint rolled with high-THC cannabis may not produce the same effect as eating an edible with a 1:1 THC/CBD ratio. When you’re experimenting with cannabis products, you might have to sample a wide variety of strains until you find one that works for you.

In 2017, the National Academy of Sciences determined that  “…while the use of cannabis for the treatment of pain is supported by well-controlled clinical trials…. very little is known about the efficacy, dose, routes of administration, or side effects of commonly used and commercially available cannabis products in the United States.”

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Final Thoughts

Dealing with chronic pain can put an enormous strain on your life. It’s not unusual to be desperate for relief. However, modern medicine has failed to come up with an adequate solution. Opioids are destructive. So much so, the country is currently in the throes of a full-blown opioid crisis.

Cannabis, however, is emerging as a potential solution. A wealth of anecdotal data demonstrates cannabis’ value in treating pain. Yet, because the research is still embryonic, there are still a lot of questions to be asked (and answered).

What’s the best consumption method? Is THC or CBD better at relieving pain? And things of this nature.

Until those questions are answered, patients have to be in charge of their own cannabis care. Your doctor can give recommendations, but that’s the extent of their help.

Be sure to read some of our strain reviews before heading to the dispensary. You’ll get detailed information that’ll help you find the product that’s best for you.


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