Health

Here's What Marijuana Does to Pain

For people suffering from chronic pain, treatment options are generally limited. You can take prescription painkillers such as Vicodin or Oxycotin, but while they might alleviate your discomfort, they are also addictive and dangerous. And as the U.S. continues to struggle with rising rates of opiate addiction, the search is on for a safer alternative. Cannabis appears to be a good candidate.

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A new study published in the Journal of Pain found that chronic pain patients who used marijuana for one year had reduced discomfort, improved quality of life, and experienced no increased risk of serious side effects. McGill University researchers analyzed reports from 216 cannabis users and 215 non-users, finding that pot is effective at treating pain.

"[W]e noted significant improvements in pain intensity and the physical dimension of quality of life over one year among the cannabis users compared to controls," the researchers wrote. "There was also significant improvement among cannabis users in measures of the sensory component of pain, symptom distress, and total mood disturbance compared to controls."

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This isn't the first study to look at the effects of marijuana on pain. In 2009, the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy announced that cannabis could help with "multiple pain syndromes," including neuropathic (burning), mechanical (aching), and inflammatory (acute, sharp) pain. Not only is the substance an effective analgesic, but it also carries "minimal physical dependence" with limited drug interactions, the organization wrote.

What's more, a review of cannabis trials published in the British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology concluded that "it is reasonable to consider cannabinoids as a treatment option for the management of chronic neuropathic pain with evidence of efficacy in other types of chronic pain such as fibromyalgia and rheumatoid arthritis as well."

And a 2013 study published in the Clinical Journal of Pain found that "cannabinergic pain medicines have been shown to be modestly effective and safe treatments in patients with a variety of chronic pain conditions," leading researchers to conclude that incorporating medical cannabis into pain medicine education "seems warranted and continuing clinical research and empiric treatment trials are appropriate."

Cannabis Bud

The takeaway here is something that might seem obvious to regular marijuana users: pot is good for pain. But it's not just good, it's safe. Even over-the-counter medication such as Tylenol carries risk of overdose if you take too much, threatening to damage your liver. Cannabis, on the other hand, has no serious side effects, and numerous studies have demonstrated that it is similarly effective at treating various types of pain.

What's remarkable about this potential health benefit is what it could mean in the context of America's heroin epidemic. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, abuse of painkillers directly correlates with the rise of heroin addiction in the U.S. If a person becomes addicted to prescription pain medication, there is a strong chance that they could transition to cheaper, more potent drugs such as heroin.

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But in states where pain patients have access to medical marijuana, the rate of fatal drug overdose is reduced, suggesting that pot is something of an "anti-gateway drug." By legalizing marijuana and allowing people to manage their pain with cannabis, we could effectively stop the cycle and help patients who might benefit from a safe and non-addictive alternative to pills.

For information about what strains of cannabis are best for treating pain, check out Leafly.

Featured Image:Drug Policy Alliance/Sonya Yruel