Chronic Pain and Cannabis: What Science Says
Chronic pain is among the most commonly cited reasons that people use medical cannabis in the United States. And considering Western medicine’s pharmaceutical-driven approach to pain relief, it’s no wonder public attention has begun circling around medical cannabis as a promising alternative to more dangerous alternatives like opioid painkillers.
But does medical cannabis actually work to relieve physical pain? Setting aside the fact that federal drug laws have heavily stymied the type of large-scale, double-blind, placebo-controlled human trials that we generally look to for proof of a medication’s efficacy, there are quite a few smaller-scale studies and scientific reports examining the relationship between chronic pain and cannabis.
Here’s what the science says about chronic pain and cannabis.
The Role of Cannabinoids
The human endocannabinoid system (ECS)—which consists of a network of cannabinoid receptors throughout the body—plays a key role in pain sensation. And when the ECS is activated via cannabis consumption, preclinical studies demonstrate a range of pain-relieving effects, including well-established anti-inflammatory activity.
But research shows that the pain-relieving effects of cannabis extend beyond modulating the body’s inflammatory response. The ECS appears to also exert synergistic effects with other bodily systems that influence pain relief, especially the endogenous opioid system, which is another physiological system consisting of receptors scattered throughout the body.
Research also indicates that the ECS modulates pain-related neural activity by reducing sensitization and inflammation. In other words, the ECS appears to play a key role in the way pain signals are communicated between the brain and the body.
Chronic Pain and Cannabis
In 2017, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine released findings from a rigorous analysis of 10,000 scientific abstracts dating to 1999 about the health impacts of cannabis consumption. The analgesic effect of cannabis, particularly for chronic pain, was among the strongest conclusions reached in the report. According to the report’s authors:
“One of the therapeutic uses of cannabis and cannabinoids is to treat chronic pain in adults. The committee found evidence to support that patients who were treated with cannabis or cannabinoids were more likely to experience a significant reduction in pain symptoms.”
Research suggests cannabis products may prove most helpful for patients with chronic and treatment-resistant pain, including neuropathic pain and pain stemming from conditions such as fibromyalgia and rheumatoid arthritis.