Pain is the body’s way of letting us know something is wrong and is our body’s way of saying that it’s time to take action. However, when the pain becomes a recurring issue, it’s no longer helpful and can have a massive impact on our quality of life.
Nerve pain, also known as neuropathy, can produce uncomfortable and debilitating effects. It arises when nerves become damaged, and it accounts for one-fifth of all cases of chronic pain. It’s often associated with diseases like diabetes but can occur from issues like tumors, HIV, arthritis, poor circulation, accidents, or surgeries. People with this condition can experience extreme burning pain, tingling, and numbness, and often have trouble finding a safe and effective treatment.
Pain can be a good thing. After all, it warns us of threats to our well-being. But when pain becomes a long-term issue, it can have a significant impact on our quality of life. The approaching legalization of cannabis – better known as marijuana – in Canada has many wondering if it is a good option for pain relief.
Chronic pain is no stranger to many Canadians – nearly 20% of adults live with it on a daily basis. Unfortunately, the odds of suffering from chronic pain increase with age, and women are more likely to be affected than men.
Neuropathic pain – which arises from damage to the nerves – accounts for about one in five cases of chronic pain. Common culprits of this type of pain include accidents, injuries, or surgery, and symptoms or complications of an illness such as diabetes. People will often experience sensations like numbness, tingling, jabbing, freezing, or burning.
Neuropathic pain is also notoriously difficult to treat. Medications that are normally prescribed for other types of pain (e.g., non-steroidal anti-inflammatories or opioids) are often ineffective (3). Studies suggest that cannabis may help relieve chronic neuropathic pain (5). But does the evidence stand up to the hype, or are the pain-relieving properties of cannabis all smoke and mirrors?
What the research tells us
Two compounds in cannabis – THC and CBD – are thought to contribute to cannabis’s ability to relieve pain. THC can alter pain perception by reducing anxiety and stress, while CBD combats pain through its anti-inflammatory action. Cannabis-based medications come in several forms and can by inhaled by pipe or cigarette, or can be taken orally by spray or capsule.
A recent systematic review found that compared to placebo, cannabis-based medications may provide moderate to substantial pain relief, and can reduce pain intensity, sleep problems, and psychological distress (5). Unfortunately, these benefits are often associated with side effects such as sedation, confusion, and psychosis. For some people, these side effects may be severe enough to outweigh cannabis’s pain-relieving benefits.
Overall, the quality of the research around cannabis for neuropathic pain relief is low. That is not to say that neuropathic pain sufferers should disregard cannabis as a treatment option – it may work for some, but not for others. The bottom line is that there is currently a lack of good evidence supporting cannabis-based medicines for neuropathic pain relief. More high-quality research is needed to confirm its benefits. New research may be particularly important in older adult populations, and in people with health conditions that predispose them to nerve pain. In the meantime, cannabis may be a useful option for people who fail to get adequate relief from established treatment options (5).
Treating Nerve Pain
Nerve pain is notoriously difficult to treat and can become so overwhelming that it causes depression. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatories are often ineffective, and patients usually forced to use strong prescription medication like opioids for relief. Unfortunately, these types of drugs have many adverse side effects and can lead to dependency, which can further mental health problems.
For a long time, strong prescription pain medication was thought to be the only option for patients with nerve pain. The good news is that cannabis is now becoming an option for more people, and we’re finding out that it’s an effective alternative to potentially addictive pain medication.
How Does Cannabis Work for Nerve Pain?
The endocannabinoid system plays an essential role in regulating neuroplasticity and homeostasis of the central nervous system. It also works to modulate pain transmission in the nerve pathways. The body produces its own endocannabinoids on demand in the central nervous system, which act as a circuit breaker to reduce pain.
After a nerve injury, neurons can become more reactive and responsive. This can cause a series of cellular events that lead to the development of painful nerve endings. Cannabinoids can reduce nerve pain by altering these cellular functions. Cannabinoids like THC and CBD activate the CB1 and CB2 receptors and help regulate neurotransmitters and the central nervous system, helping to alleviate pain. Cannabis also plays a role in the endorphin system and can reduce a patient’s perception of pain, making it feel less intense and easier to deal with.
Two cannabinoids found in cannabis – CBD and THC – have been receiving most of the attention lately for their ability to knock-out pain. However, it’s not just THC or CBD that work to make you feel better. Many other cannabinoids and terpenes have analgesic properties as well.
When all of the naturally occurring cannabinoids and plant compounds in cannabis work together, a synergy is created known as the “entourage effect.” Whole plant medicine from cannabis can be a much more effective and healthy approach to pain management than most pharmaceuticals, which only isolate one or two chemicals as active ingredients in the medication.
If you want to learn more about treating pain with high-quality cannabis, we’d love to help. Schedule an appointment today or drop by. We’re happy to answer all of your questions and get you started on the road to better health.
What the research says
In recent years, many studies have looked at the effects of marijuana for chronic pain. Some studies used parts of the marijuana plant and some have used the entire plant so more research is needed. Using parts of the marijuana plant (like CBD oil) helps study specific actions of that ingredient, but when the whole plant is used there is what is called an entourage effect, where the parts work together to have more effect.
A 2015 reviewTrusted Source of research on the use of marijuana and cannabinoids for various chronic pain conditions reports that several trials had positive results. The researchers suggest that marijuana or cannabinoids may be effective for treating some types of chronic pain including neuropathy (nerve pain).
A research paper from 2016 found that marijuana use for cancer pain led to a 64-percent reduction in opioid use, improved quality of life, and caused fewer medication side effects. It also led to participants using fewer medications.
Smaller studies have reported benefits for other types of chronic pain. For example:
- Of about 17,000 people with cancer, 70 percent reportedly experienced an improvement in pain and general well-being after marijuana use.
- People with chronic migraines experiencedTrusted Source a decrease in migraine episodes after using the drug.
However, there is still a need for more research into the area of marijuana use for chronic pain, especially into the use of different strains, dosages, and methods of delivery.
An Australian studyTrusted Source, published in July 2018, concluded that marijuana use did not reduce the symptoms of pain or the need to use opioid medications. However, the findings were mostly based on reports from people who used the drug recreationally.
Using marijuana specifically for medicinal purposes might yield different results.