When you suffer from chronic pain, pain medication can be a vital tool that helps you get through your daily life. However, some traditional pain medications also come with unpleasant side effects that can seriously hurt a person’s quality of life or, in some cases, even put their life at risk.
Because of the side effects associated with traditional pain medications, many people with chronic pain conditions find themselves looking for holistic alternatives. And there’s one natural treatment that’s at the top of many people’s list: marijuana.
There’s quite a lot of research that suggests marijuana may be an effective treatment for pain. Pain management is also the top reason people use medical marijuana. But how does marijuana work to relieve pain? Can marijuana replace pain medications? Read on as we answer these questions and more in our closer look at using marijuana for pain relief.
Research on Marijuana as a Painkiller
Research shows that marijuana can relieve multiple types of chronic pain, including inflammatory pain, neurological pain, and central pain.
Medical Marijuana and Inflammatory Pain
Nociceptive pain, also known as inflammatory pain, occurs when tissue is damaged. To repair itself, the damaged tissue will recruit inflammatory cells and immune cells, which release proteins and chemicals that start the repair process– but also cause pain as they activate nerves in the spinal cord and brain.
Studies have shown that marijuana can treat nociceptive pain in two ways. One, by reducing inflammation at the site of the damaged tissue. Both tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD) have strong anti-inflammatory properties, allowing them to reduce pain caused by excessive inflammation. Then, two, marijuana appears to be able to reduce nociceptive pain by interacting with how the body processes pain. THC can modulate pain levels by activating CB1 receptors in the spinal cord and brain. CBD can work similarly, as it can increase the level of anandamide cannabinoids (these are endogenous cannabinoids that can activate CB1 receptors) in the endocannabinoid system. CBD may also help relieve pain sensation by increasing GABA activity. Since GABA is an inhibitory neurotransmitter, it can inhibit some pain signals as they travel through the spinal cord and brain.
Medical Marijuana and Neuropathic Pain
Neuropathic pain, also called nerve pain, occurs when the nervous system is damaged. Neuropathic pain can happen after an injury that pinches or pierces the nerves, or it may happen due to a disease that affects the nerves, such as multiple sclerosis. Whatever the cause, neuropathic pain is notoriously difficult to treat. This type of pain is not related to inflammation, so it doesn’t respond to the anti-inflammatory drugs that treat most other types of pain.
Research suggests that marijuana can ease neuropathic pain by activating CB1 receptors. As mentioned above, THC can activate CB1 receptors directly, while CBD can activate these cannabinoid receptors indirectly by increasing anandamide levels. It’s thought that CBD may also be able to ease nerve pain, including chemotherapy-related nerve pain, by activating serotonin receptors.
Medical Marijuana and Central Pain
Central pain is a newer term that describes pain that’s caused by nervous system dysfunction. A notable example of central pain is the pain caused by fibromyalgia, a chronic pain disorder that is thought to be caused by pain signal dysfunction.
Central pain is another type of pain that’s challenging to treat. Medical researchers are still unsure of the exact causes of nervous system dysfunction, so they’re also unsure of the best way to treat it. However, some evidence suggests that cannabis may be able to treat central pain. For example, a recent study looked at how the use of marijuana affected pain in 26 fibromyalgia patients. The study found that all of the participants reported benefits and half of the participants stopped taking their other pain medications. The results of this study suggest that marijuana may be able to help people suffering from central pain, which is often treatment-resistant.
Drawbacks of Traditional Pain Medications
Recently, more and more people are turning to marijuana as an alternative to traditional drug therapy, since these pain medications can have significant drawbacks. Doctors commonly suggest that pain patients take over-the-counter painkillers or prescription painkillers, and each option has its own potential issues.
The main issue with non-prescription pain medications is that many come with the risk of serious side effects, especially for chronic pain patients who may need long-term pain relief. For example, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) can be very effective on nociceptive pain, but they can have extremely adverse health effects when used long-term. Over time, continued use of NSAIDs (like aspirin and ibuprofen) can cause stomach ulcers, kidney damage, and increased risk of heart attack and stroke.
Prescription painkillers can also come with the risk of severe symptoms. This is especially true when it comes to opioid medications. Opioid medications can relieve pain by reducing the intensity of pain signals and changing how the brain receives pain signals. The way opioids work can make them very effective at providing pain relief, but it also makes them extremely addictive. Higher doses of opioids can also slow your heart rate, which can lead to death. Death from opioids is sadly somewhat common in the United States. Opioids are the main cause of overdose death in the United States. In 2018 alone, 46,802 people in the United States died due to opioid overdose.
Can Marijuana Replace Opioids For Chronic Pain?
Because opioids can be extremely dangerous, many people dealing with severe pain have wondered if marijuana can replace the medication for chronic pain. Well, there haven’t been any studies that directly compare the effectiveness of using marijuana versus opioids for the treatment of chronic pain, so there’s no direct data to look at on this subject. However, some related studies suggest that cannabis could very well be a good replacement for using opioids for pain relief, since they’ve found that people with chronic pain have been able to discontinue opioid use after swapping it out for cannabis. For example, almost three quarters of patients that participated in a 2019 study reported being able to completely stop using opioids after they started using cannabis for their chronic pain.
Can Marijuana Be Used Together With Other Preparations?
Can you use medical cannabis from a dispensary alongside other pain relief treatments or prescription drugs? That very much depends on what you may want to use alongside medical cannabis. According to the current research, there are no major interactions between cannabis and NSAIDs, so it’s probably fine to use them at the same time as medical cannabis. However, cannabis and opioids seem to have at least a slight interaction. Notably, some studies have found that cannabis may enhance the analgesic (pain-relieving) effects of opioids. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you can’t use marijuana together with opioids, but it’s important to consider this potential interaction.
Note that marijuana does have significant interactions with certain prescription medications, including blood thinners and epilepsy medications. Depending on the specific interaction, marijuana may make drugs either less effective or more effective. This may mean that your doctor will want to adjust the dose of your other medication or that they may not want you to combine the two treatments.
Whether you think marijuana will interact with your other treatments or not, you should always speak to your healthcare provider before combining any medical treatments. Your doctor can help you understand how cannabis may affect your other treatments and your overall wellness goals, and help you decide if the medical use of marijuana could be a good option for your unique needs.
Final Thoughts: Marijuana as Pain Replacement
There’s a lot of scientific evidence that suggests marijuana can provide effective pain relief. And, anecdotally, we’ve heard many people say that marijuana has helped them manage their chronic pain, including hard-to-treat chronic nerve pain and central pain. Of course, it’s important to point out that everyone’s body is different. Some people may find that marijuana is the perfect treatment for their pain, while others find that another option is better for them. Ultimately, whether or not marijuana is the right pain treatment for you all comes down to what you and your doctor think is best.