According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, around 20.4% of adults in the U.S. experience chronic pain. Out of that number, 8% report having pain severe enough to disrupt daily life. To treat or manage the pain, many people are turning to cannabis or marijuana, instead of prescription and over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers.
A recent study unveiled that around 80% of 1,321 medical cannabis users use cannabis as a substitute for prescription pain medications, like benzodiazepines and opioids. So, why are more people turning to cannabis for pain relief? Can it relieve chronic pain—including residual limb pain—better than prescription painkillers? We'll explore possible answers to these questions in this article.
Does cannabis help with pain?
Among the reasons people choose to use cannabis over OTC and prescription pain relievers is that cannabis has fewer side effects than opioids. They also say that it helps them manage their pain better. According to the study mentioned above, 88% of those who used cannabis for pain reported a lot or a little improvement.
Studies back the reason for the inconsistent reports of pain relief. Researchers found that each person experiences pain differently, and our psychology mostly influences it.
The subjectivity of pain aside, the moderate effect of cannabis on chronic pain has been recorded in a lot of studies. A review published in The Journal of the International Association for the Study of Pain analyzed 104 studies that examined the use of cannabis and cannabinoids for chronic non-cancer pain.
The researchers found that 29% of those taking a cannabinoid had a 30% decrease in pain. But so did 25.9% of people who took a placebo.
How does cannabis relieve pain?
Despite the findings of the review, there are still a substantial amount of people that say cannabis helps them manage their chronic pain better than when taking opioids. So, how does cannabis work?
In 2018 a group of researchers from Israel sought to answer that question. They examined the effects of THC on a particular type of nerve pain. THC is a type of cannabinoid that is deemed most medically useful, along with cannabidiol (CBD). However, THC is also the compound that makes people "high."
The researchers examined 15 chronic nerve pain cases and found that THC disrupts the signals that flow between areas of the brain that process sensory signals and emotions. This finding confirms the subjective nature of pain.
The popular CBD is another cannabis compound that is also deemed most medically useful. However, it may act differently from THC.
Another 2018 study, led by Canadian researchers, sought to figure out CBD's effect on the brain. They gave CBD to test rats for seven days and found that the subjects had lower levels of pain and anxiety, both of which are common symptoms of chronic pain.
The CBD minimized symptoms of chronic pain by binding to receptors in the brain that are involved in producing both symptoms. However, we need to wait for more research to find out if CBD works the same way for phantom limb pain in humans.
In contrast, opioid-based medications, like codeine, hydrocodone, morphine, and oxycodone, attach to opioid receptors throughout the body, effectively blocking pain messages sent from the body to the brain. While opioids are effective pain killers, most people want to avoid taking them because they can be highly addictive.
Precautions to using cannabis
However, taking cannabis doesn't exempt one from undesirable side effects. Some of the side effects of cannabis include injuries when driving or working, cardiovascular disease, and lung disease, especially when cannabis is smoked. It is also addictive.
Cannabis, now legal in Hawaii
Last July, Hawaii became the 26th U.S. state to decriminalize cannabis. For many people with chronic pain, this development provides them with an alternative to manage their pain.
This new law, which will take effect in January 2020, allows people to possess up to three grams of cannabis without the looming possibility of being jailed. However, they can still be fined $130. Possession of copious amounts and repeat are subject to more severe sentences.What do you think of using cannabis in place of prescriptions painkillers? Have you used it to treat residual limb pain? Do share your thoughts in the comments section below.