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Spinal cord injury and cannabis: Why patients are turning to complementary therapies

The majority of people living with a spinal cord injury use complementary therapies such as cannabis

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Participants in the study were often using these therapies in an attempt to relieve pain. 

New research shows the majority of people living with a spinal cord injury use complementary therapies including cannabis.

A study led by experts from five Spinal Cord Injury Model Systems Centers in the US, revealed that 80 percent of participants were current or previous users of complementary and integrative healthcare approaches such as multivitamins, cannabis, massage, and acupuncture.

This study is the first to systematically assess complementary and integrative healthcare in people with spinal cord injury.

The findings have prompted calls for more in-depth studies of the safety and efficacy of these adjunctive therapies in these patients.

According to the survey, participants were often using these therapies in an attempt to relieve pain. 

Yet there is very little scientific evidence for the efficacy of most approaches, and even less for their safety, specifically for people with spinal cord injury, whose concurrent treatments and functional limitations may present additional risks compared to the general population, say those behind the report.

In an analysis of an online survey completed by 411 participants with spinal cord injury, the research team characterised how often and why people try using therapies that are not prescribed by their clinicians.

Dr Jennifer Coker at Craig’s Rocky Mountain Regional  Spinal Cord System commented: “Nearly 70 percent of participants reported that they were currently using a form of complementary and integrative healthcare, whereas fewer than half reported using non-traditional therapies prior to their injury.

“This tells us that people with spinal cord injury are eager for information about and access to alternative therapies, and we need to be able to provide rehabilitation clinicians with up to date and accurate information about what’s safe and effective and what’s not.”

Reported complementary and integrative healthcare approaches comprised a wide range of types, with the most common being multivitamins, followed by massage, cannabis, vitamin D, cranberry extract, and vitamin C. 

The most common reasons for current use were general health and wellness, pain, bladder management, and to improve mobility, flexibility, and strength, though a variety of other reasons were also reported, ranging from respiratory function to mental health

Among participants who reported not trying complementary and integrative healthcare approaches, the primary reason was not knowing what options were available.

Co-author of the study, Dr Amanda Botticello at Kessler’s Northern New Jersey Spinal Cord System, commented: “There is clearly a need and opportunity to educate people with spinal cord injury and their health care providers about the potential use of complementary and integrative healthcare interventions. Expanding the toolbox of interventions available to address complications and maximize well-being would be a great benefit.”

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