Are There Benefits of Medical Marijuana for Managing Chronic Pain?

a prescription paper with a bottle of medical marijuana spilled onto it

It’s one of the most hotly-debated topics in medicine: medical marijuana.

Marijuana, in its various forms, has been used to treat a variety of medical conditions for the past 3,000 years, but it has been illegal in most states since the 1930s. But as many states have legalized the drug for medicinal purposes, the nation has taken a growing interest in the benefits of medical marijuana.

Currently, medical marijuana is used to treat symptoms of conditions like epilepsy and glaucoma or, in cancer patients, to control side effects of chemotherapy such as nausea and vomiting. Research suggests that it also can be an effective treatment for chronic pain from multiple sclerosis.

Also read,The Truth About Medical Marijuana And Epilepsy Treatment

However, researchers don’t always agree on whether marijuana is effective in treating pain.

Three Things to Know

Here are three things to know about using medical marijuana for chronic pain.

Marijuana can reduce pain without actually reducing pain

There are relatively few studies on how marijuana works as a painkiller, and the studies that do exist tend to be small.

However, those studies have uncovered a potential reason why marijuana might be helpful: It can change the way you perceive pain.

Pain medications usually affect the regions of the brain that create the sensation of pain. Marijuana is different—it doesn’t affect those regions. It changes our emotional reaction to pain, meaning the same amount of pain is still present—it’s just much more bearable.

Some studies of multiple sclerosis patients have gone a step further, suggesting that marijuana can create a placebo effect for some people. In other words, because patients expect marijuana to reduce pain, they perceive less pain after they take it.

However, the same studies show that in some patients, marijuana actually does better than placebos (sugar pills) in reducing some types of MS-related pain.

The placebo effect makes it hard to determine if marijuana actually works—some estimates put the rate of the placebo effect as high as 70%. But even if it’s just a placebo effect, it can still be beneficial, as it helps patients feel better.

With benefits come risks

When medical marijuana does its intended job, it can be life-changing. That’s especially true for cancer patients who report that it relieves their pain and eases their nausea from chemotherapy. And multiple sclerosis patients have reported fewer muscle spasms when they take it.

But even if marijuana is helpful, it comes with some serious risks :

  • Breathing problems: If marijuana is smoked, it can cause some of the same problems that tobacco cigarettes cause, like frequent cough or a higher risk of developing lung infections.
  • Hard drug use: While most marijuana users do not go on to use hard drugs (e.g., cocaine, heroin), marijuana does have the potential to be a gateway drug, leading users to try other drugs.
  • Short-term effects: Marijuana can cause difficulty with thinking, learning, problem-solving, body movement, and memory.

Perhaps one of the biggest risks is that the risks are relatively unknown. With so few clinical trials on the books, and the fact that marijuana has not been regulated for quality or consistency across the country, the long-term effects of medical marijuana are not yet known.

There is an unexpected benefit

With the rise in popularity of medical marijuana came an unintended, but welcome, benefit: reduced mortality rates due to opioid overdoses.

Opioids are strong painkillers, but they’re risky to use. They are so addictive that every day, almost 3,900 people in the US begin using them for non-medical reasons. Opioid use can also lead to the use of illegal drugs—4 out of 5 new heroin users began by misusing legally-prescribed opioids. And the rate of death by overdose of prescription opioids has quadrupled since 1999.

The numbers are grim, especially as they continue to increase. But in states where marijuana can be legally prescribed for pain relief, the number of deaths due to opioid overdose has actually begun to decrease.

infographic_explains_states_with_medical_marijuana_dispensaries_have_lower_death_rates_from_opiod_overdoses_and_addiction

Another study looked at drivers age 21 to 40 who were killed in motor vehicle accidents. It found that in states that allowed medical marijuana dispensaries, fewer of those drivers tested positive for opioids than they did before the laws allowing medical marijuana were enacted.

The Verdict

Medical marijuana shows promise for treating chronic pain, but that promise should be approached with caution. The science is still out on exactly how—or if—marijuana relieves pain, and the long-term effects remain unknown. If you are struggling with chronic pain, talk to your doctor about your options.

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