Chronic pain is a prevalent condition in the United States. A 2016 study estimated that nearly 66 million adults in the United States suffer from this condition. That’s 20.4% of the population. So it’s no wonder that opioid addiction has become a national emergency. At the same time, the use of medical marijuana for pain relief has grown in popularity.
Naturally, many proponents of marijuana pain relief methods champion widespread legalization of cannabis. They argue that this action would solve America’s pain pill epidemic. But how realistic is that theory? Let’s explore the idea.
Understanding What Causes Pain
There are four main categories of pain:
- Neuropathic: Nerve pain caused by nerve damage, injury or compression. Some examples are carpal tunnel syndrome, diabetes-related pain, sciatica and phantom limb pain.
- Nociceptive: Caused by injury or damage to your tissues. Broken bones, sprains, muscle strains, burns and post-surgical pain are a few examples.
- Inflammatory: Due to inflammation in your tissues and joints. Osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease and gout are a few of the conditions that cause inflammatory pain.
- Functional: Unknown cause. Examples include IBS, some types of migraines, fibromyalgia, vulvodynia and interstitial cystitis (painful bladder syndrome).
You typically experience pain either short term or long term. Short-term pain due to injury or damage is acute. That’s usually the case with nociceptive pain.
Chronic pain is long term, but you may have periods of relief between flare-ups. There is no cure for chronic pain, only relief measures.
Some people experience mixed pain. For example, you may have both nociceptive and inflammatory pain because your injury causes inflammation. Regardless, the brain is responsible for pain perception, and the experience and intensity are subjective and personal.
The theory behind medical marijuana pain relief relies on a few key claims:
- THC (Tetrahydrocannabinol) and CBD (cannabidiol) have anti-inflammatory properties. This reduces the cause of inflammatory pain.
- CBD inhibits your body’s pain signals, preventing them from reaching your brain.
- Marijuana’s “high” effect makes you feel good, minimizing the impact of pain and your perception of discomfort.
These effects may be helpful in reducing inflammatory and functional pain, as well as some chronic neuropathic pain symptoms. But it’s doubtful that marijuana can alleviate most nociceptive pain. You’ll likely want more than weed to treat pain from a fracture or post-surgical pain.
The Effectiveness of Medical Marijuana Pain Relief
Unfortunately, there is little research on how effective marijuana is for pain relief. In truth, there’s not much documented research on marijuana at all. That’s because US federal cannabis law limits researchers.
The limited data that is available indicates that nerve pain and cancer-related pain are the most receptive to marijuana. That information was curated largely from studies performed outside the United States. But anecdotally, there is no shortage of evidence for the effectiveness of marijuana pain relief.
Medical marijuana for pain relief is the most common use of legally prescribed cannabis in the United States. Moreover, it appears that chronic pain sufferers are the people most likely to turn to medical marijuana. Their desire to avoid addictive opiates in their search for pain relief makes them open to marijuana use.
Additionally, the fervent desire to get some relief may make medical marijuana users more susceptible. In effect, they feel better because they want to so badly and they believe the marijuana is the cause. Without further research, it’s impossible to know definitively.
The Downsides of Using Marijuana for Pain
So, if you feel better and your pain is lessened by marijuana, what’s the problem? Keep in mind, marijuana is a drug. And, as with any drug, there are potential side effects.
When you suffer from chronic pain, marijuana side effects may seem negligible. Plus, these issues don’t surface for all users. But it’s smart to be aware of them.
- Long-term use can lead to problems with memory, attention, problem-solving and learning.
- Regular use may cause psychiatric issues, like suicidal ideation, social anxiety disorder and potential psychoses.
- Some users experience anxiety, paranoia and fear.
- Marijuana use may play a role in increasing alcohol intake and tobacco use.
- Increased heart rates and lowered blood pressure can increase the risk of heart attack.
- Smoking marijuana causes respiratory damage.
- Consuming marijuana edibles has been linked to hallucinations, delusions, disorientation and poor memory.
- Users may develop an unhealthy dependence on marijuana.
If you develop a marijuana dependence, it may soon be impossible to tell whether your continued use is helping with pain management. The dependency will override the usefulness.
Alternative Solutions for Chronic Pain Relief
If you feel marijuana has helped you with a chronic pain disorder, you may be resistant to alternative options. However, if you have some concern about the potential downsides, it’s a good idea to review other relief solutions.
Creams, lotions, sprays and pain patches applied directly to the area can offer some relief. You can even try CBD tinctures to see if they work better than traditional products. Over-the-counter options are plentiful.
Steroids and local anesthetics can alleviate pain through trigger point injections. Patients with fibromyalgia and myofascial pain syndrome have responded well to these treatments.
Migraine sufferers have enjoyed pain relief from quarterly onabotulinumtoxia (Botox) injections in the neck and head.
Spinal cord stimulation implants block pain signals with low-level electrical stimulation. People with chronic back and limb pain may benefit from these implants.
An intrathecal drug delivery system uses a surgically implanted medicine pump for pain relief. Smaller doses of pain meds are needed, limiting the side effects of prescription medication.
This is a noninvasive, non-medicinal approach to pain management. Physical therapists apply various techniques to help reduce pain. Those may include exercise, movement, massage and manual therapy.
Many people find alternative therapies quite effective for pain management. These include techniques like massage, acupuncture, chiropractic manipulation, yoga, meditation, mindfulness, hypnosis, ultrasound therapy and biofeedback.
Treating Marijuana Dependence
While not common, marijuana dependence is a very real problem for many users. This behavioral addiction can manifest quickly and present many problems due to its unwelcome side effects. Fortunately, this dependence can be treated.
If using medical marijuana for pain relief has led to an unwelcome dependence, our knowledgeable team at FHE can help. Call 833-596-3502 to speak with an empathetic counselor. We’re available to take your call day or night. Reach out for help today.