Why Does Medical Marijuana Work So Well for Pain?

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A quick look at Ohio’s list of conditions approved for medical marijuana treatment will show you that many conditions have something in common: major symptoms include chronic, often severe, pain. From long-term pain from Crohn’s, cancer, Huntington’s, or MS, medical marijuana has proven effective at treating various types of pain in a wide range of patients. This is likely why more than 60% of US states have approved medical cannabis for pain as a legal route of treatment, despite the drug still being illegal on a federal level.

So, what’s the scientific evidence behind the efficacy of treating pain with medical marijuana? What methods of ingesting marijuana are best? And on a cellular, neuroreceptor level, how does it all work?

Chronic Pain & the Evidence for Medical Marijuana

Results of clinical research strongly suggest medical cannabis might be just as effective at treating pain, if not more so, than opioids. But that doesn’t mean everyone agrees with that suggestion, and it doesn’t mean that some studies have had opposing results. An issue in the US is that clinical research on medical marijuana is limited since it’s still federally classified as a Class I illegal drug. The compounding complication is that the ethics of human studies on pain are often treacherous waters for researchers.

As a result, the vast majority of the studies that have been done in the US weren’t even focused on medical marijuana’s uses for pain. In fact, according to the National Academies of Science, Engineering & Medicine, of 10,000 studies done on the efficacy of cannabis in medical treatments, only 7 looked at medical marijuana for chronic pain. And of those 7, only 6 directly collected data on pain; the 7th study was a meta-analysis of nearly 30 other studies, which mean the results of that study had implications for medical marijuana’s use in analgesics.

Here are a few studies with promising implications for using marijuana to develop new, safer painkillers:

  • The European Academy of Neurology found that in patients with migraines, medical marijuana treatment resulted in a 40%+ reduction in pain symptoms. These results extended to patients with cluster headaches but, interestingly, only in patients with a history of migraines in childhood.
  • The University of Colorado conducted a study specifically on how medical marijuana affects back pain caused by degenerative conditions. Of 200 patients, 89% reported moderate back pain reduction with marijuana ingestion 1-2 times per day. 81% of these patients also reported that medical cannabis reduced their lower back pain symptoms more than opiates.
  • Israeli medical researchers found, in a study of 1200 cancer patients who used medical marijuana for their pain symptoms for 6 months, found that more than 50% of patients reported significant pain relief.
  • An Australian analysis of results from 32 studies on medical marijuana’s use in MS pain suggested that medical cannabis has a modest effect on muscle spasms and pain resulting from multiple sclerosis.

Issues with Medical Marijuana Treatments for Pain

While medical cannabis might not have the dangerous side effects of opiates, such as high-addiction rates and organ damage from chronic use, studies on medical marijuana for back pain and other pain resulting from illness or injury have uncovered complications that come with this method of pain relief.

For instance, results from that European Academy study on using cannabis in treatment regimens for migraine pain also suggested that using medical marijuana increases your chances of being in a car accident, and might increase your chances of developing schizophrenia. And a German study found that people who used marijuana for pain were more likely to experience dizziness, confusion, and sleepiness. Chronic bronchitis is also a concern in people who ingest medical marijuana long-term via smoking.

Another issue with medical research on marijuana is the issue of experimental design. Some studies have used populations who already smoke marijuana, meaning there is no control baseline for efficacy in reducing pain, as chronic users likely have some level of tolerance. Then there’s the complication of the placebo effect, which has presented itself at as high of a 30-40% rate in medical marijuana pain studies.

The good news is, that adverse results from experiments can prove more useful than positive results, because it helps researchers better hone the doses and methods of administering medical marijuana to chronic pain patients, so these things don’t necessarily mean marijuana can’t still change the face of pain relief in Western medicine.

The Biology of How Medical Marijuana Reduces Pain

Believe it or not, our body already produced cannabinoid chemicals, and we have cannabinoid receptors as well. Cannabinoid compounds that agonize (read: stimulate) these receptors serve to regulate both neuronal and tissue-based inflammatory responses. This interaction also stimulates the brain’s rewards center, which serves to reduce neuronal pain responses.

Both THC and CBD have these effects, but they interact with our cannabinoid receptors differently. THC binds with the receptors, which is why it creates that high feeling, whereas CBD doesn’t, so it has similar therapeutic results, but without the high. Often, people who use medical marijuana for pain use CBD-only or high-CBD/low-THC cannabis during the daytime so that their daily functionality isn’t compromised.

Getting an Ohio MMJ Card in Cincinnati is Simple!

While technically not a prescription, getting a doctor’s recommendation for medical marijuana is pretty easy in Ohio, and it gives you access to every state-approved dispensary, where medical marijuana pills, edibles, tinctures, and more are carefully formulated for different kinds of pain relief.

Degenerative disc disease will likely be added to the list of approved conditions this year, which would mean hundreds of thousands of Ohioans on pharmaceutical pain-management programs will be able to switch to medical marijuana for their lower back pain.

Make sure you seek out a doctor who recommends medical marijuana but also supplements it with natural treatments like massage and occupational therapy. And check out the Ohio MMJ program’s website for a list of approved conditions, proper procedures for getting your Ohio MMJ card, and answers to questions about maintaining your access to state-approved dispensaries.

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