Chronic pain can be an incredibly debilitating condition. For many who live with it on a daily or near daily basis, the condition can be so oppressive, it affects other parts of their lives, impacting their mood, health, and overall well-being. Unfortunately, many treatment options are only nominally effective. Worse, commonly prescribed drugs like opioids are highly addictive and potentially toxic; 28,000 people died from an opioid overdose in 2014, more than any other year in history. No wonder a growing number of the estimated one in five Americans who suffer from chronic pain are turning to cannabis as an alternative.
While many people believe cannabis to be an effective treatment, what does the science say? Is it really more effective and safer than other drugs? Fortunately, when it comes to cannabis and cannabinoid-based formulations, chronic pain is one of the best studied conditions. However, the causes of chronic pain are diverse. Moreover, chronic pain can be nociceptive or neuropathic. Nociceptive pain is caused by tissue damage or inflammation. Neuropathic pain is caused by nervous system damage or malfunction.
Everyone’s biology is unique and will respond differently to cannabis depending on a number of variables, including what type of chronic pain they experience, dosage, strain, and administration method (vaping, edibles, tinctures, etc.).
How Effective is Cannabis for Chronic Pain Relief?
In a comprehensive, Harvard-led systematic review of 28 studies examining the efficacy of exo-cannabinoids (e.g. synthetic formulations or cannabinoids from the plant) to treat various pain and medical issues, the author concluded, “Use of marijuana for chronic pain, neuropathic pain, and spasticity due to multiple sclerosis is supported by high quality evidence.”
Of the studies reviewed, six out of six general chronic pain studies and five out of five neuropathic pain studies found a significant improvement in symptoms among patients. Notably, while most of the studies were limited to synthetic preparations of cannabinoids, three of the five neuropathic pain studies investigated “smoked” cannabis, while two examined an oral spray preparation.
Dr. Donald Abrams, a professor and Chief of Hematology/Oncology at San Francisco General Hospital, supports cannabis to treat chronic pain, suggesting the following:
“Given the safety profile of cannabis compared to opioids, cannabis appears to be far safer. However, if a patient is already using opioids, I would urge them not to make any drastic changes to their treatment protocol without close supervision by their physician.”