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Pain and the analgesic potential of cannabis

One in every five people suffer from pain, can cannabis provide relief?

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Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

With pain becoming a global health priority, Juicy Fields explores the potential of cannabis to provide relief.

The prevalence of pain, mild to chronic, across the globe is alarming: one in every five people suffer from pain.

According to a recent meta-analysis and systematic review of population studies, one third to one half of the UK population experiences some form of pain. In the US, 50.2 million individuals suffer from chronic pain. These numbers are higher than cancer, diabetes, and heart disease statistics combined. Consequently, pain has become a global public health priority. 

Available treatments include acetaminophen, NSAIDs, and opioids. All these drugs come with adverse effects such as constipation, sedation, appetite loss, nausea, tolerance, dependence, and addiction. The opiates crisis contributes to 70 per cent of the 500,000 deaths resulting from drug overdoses. The need for a safer, natural alternative for treatment is at an all-time high.

Millions of individuals across the globe are turning to cannabis. According to anecdotal and scientific evidence, cannabis contains compounds (cannabinoids and terpenes) that possess potent analgesic properties. The market is flooded with THC, CBD, and other minor cannabinoids products promising relief from pain. The big question is, does cannabis help with pain relief? 

The answer is, it depends on the condition being treated, the cannabis compounds used, and the dosage. We shall explore this further below. First, what is pain? What are cannabinoids? Do you know of any terpenes?

What is pain? 

Pain is an uncomfortable, disturbing sensation that can be throbbing, stabbing, pinching, or aching. The feeling calls us to pay attention to our general health and provide relief. Pain can range from mild to chronic, depending on its cause. Pain can originate from either of these factors/conditions;

  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Fibromyalgia
  • HIV
  • Cancer
  • Headaches
  • Exercise
  • Nerve injury
  • Neuropathic pain
  • Surgery
  • Arthritis

What are cannabinoids and terpenes?

The cannabis plant contains over 500 compounds: cannabinoids, terpenes, flavonoids, and essential oils. Cannabinoids are unique chemical compounds that interact with the human endocannabinoid system to promote normal body functioning. They are widely used in wellness-promoting products. Two of the major cannabinoids are CBD and THC. 

Terpenes are aromatic compounds that give cannabis its flavour and scent. They interact physiologically with the human body to produce calming, elevate moods, provide relief from pain, and combat inflammation. Popular terpenes include myrcene, linalool, caryophyllene, and limonene. 

Does cannabis have analgesic properties? How can it help with pain relief?

Historical, scientific, and contemporary anecdotal evidence point to one conclusion: cannabis is a potent analgesic agent. In ancient times, cannabis was used to relieve pain stemming from PMS, haemorrhoids, toothaches, earaches, and childbirth. Up to date, many communities use cannabis as a therapeutic and medicinal agent. 

Unfortunately, scientific research on cannabis is still in its infancy due to the decades of stringent laws. It wasn’t until a few years ago that countries like Uruguay, Canada, and some US states began legalising cannabis and its derivatives. In the UK, the law prohibits selling or possessing products with more than 0.2 per cent THC. This makes it hard for researchers to conduct studies that would otherwise explore the plant’s full potential. Here is what is known…

The human endocannabinoid system, cannabinoids, and pain relief

The human endocannabinoid system (ECS) is a system of cells that send signals around the body to promote normal body functioning, otherwise known as homeostasis. The ECS consists of endocannabinoids, and enzymes, which help regulate sleep, mood, pain, memory, appetite, and reproduction. 

Once consumed, the cannabinoids interact with the ECS to bring about homeostasis. THC, for example, binds to the CB1 and CB2 receptors. The cannabinoid enhances the efficiency of the receptors, but it has also been known to cause intoxication, dizziness, and anxiety, especially in high doses. 

CBD, on the other hand, does not bind to any receptors. Instead, it affects the system by altering the functions of different components of the ECS. For example, CBD inhibits endocannabinoids reuptake and increases the activity of receptors, such as serotonin 5-HT.

Studies on cannabinoids and pain

A study published in the national library of science concluded that CBD could help alleviate neuropathic pain. The cannabinoid achieved this by targeting a3 glycine receptors. The researchers noted that the cannabinoid effectively relieved inflammation and neuropathic without having tolerance buildup on the test subjects (mice).

Chemotherapy has numerous side effects on a patient, including loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, and chronic pain. According to a study published in the British Journal of Pharmacology, CBD showed sufficient potential in alleviating pain in patients undergoing cancer treatment. The study also concluded that CBD was effective in inhibiting inflammation pain. 

TRPV1 receptors are responsible for regulating inflammation, pain, and temperature fluctuations. When researchers administered CBD to rats experiencing pain, the cannabinoid targeted the TRPV1 receptors by desensitising it. This led to a none response to the painful stimuli. 

An observatory study exploring the effectiveness of nabilone (synthetic THC) in cancer pain and symptom management concluded that the THC helped reduce pain, nausea, anxiety, and distress. Patients who did not take the nabilone had higher pain scores, and were likely to start using prescription pain medication. Nabilone consumers had lower pain scores and indicated less likelihood of getting hooked on pharmaceutical pain medication. 

Take away

Cannabis is a powerful pain-relieving agent that can help with pain ranging from mild to chronic. Scientific studies show that cannabinoids can combat pain resulting from nerve injury, headaches, HIV, cancer treatment, MS, neuropathy, among others. This presents the plant as a possible alternative to conventional pain relievers.

You too can help the researchers by joining the world’s leading cannabis crowdgrowing platform, as part of their funds are destined to investigation programs that can help understand the numerous benefits of this ancient plant.

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Medical cannabis reduces pain and opioid use in cancer patients – study

Findings suggest that medicinal cannabis can be carefully considered as an alternative to the pain relief medicines.

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Pain measures improved significantly with medical cannabis and other cancer-related symptoms also decreased.

Medical cannabis reduces cancer-related pain and the need for opiate-based painkillers, reveals a new study in oncology patients.

A comprehensive assessment of the benefits of medical cannabis for cancer-related pain, has found that for most oncology patients, pain measures improved significantly, other cancer-related symptoms also decreased, the consumption of painkillers was reduced, and the side effects were minimal. 

Published in Frontiers in Pain Research, these findings suggest that medicinal cannabis can be carefully considered as an alternative to the pain relief medicines that are usually prescribed to cancer patients.

Pain, along with depression, anxiety, and insomnia, are some of the most fundamental causes of oncology patient’s disability and suffering while undergoing treatment therapies, and may even lead to worsened prognosis.

Keto: A banner advert for Medical Cannabis Clinics

Author, David Meiri, assistant professor at the Technion Israel Institute of Technology, explained: “Traditionally, cancer-related pain is mainly treated by opioid analgesics, but most oncologists perceive opioid treatment as hazardous, so alternative therapies are required.

“Our study is the first to assess the possible benefits of medical cannabis for cancer-related pain in oncology patients; gathering information from the start of treatment, and with repeated follow-ups for an extended period of time, to get a thorough analysis of its effectiveness.”

Need for alternative treatment

After talking to several cancer patients, who were looking for alternative options for pain and symptom relief, the researchers were keen to thoroughly test the potential benefits of medicinal cannabis.

“We encountered numerous cancer patients who asked us whether medical cannabis treatment can benefit their health,” said co-author Gil Bar-Sela, associate professor at the Ha’Emek Medical Center Afula. 

“Our initial review of existing research revealed that actually not much was known regarding its effectiveness, particularly for the treatment of cancer-related pain, and of what was known, most findings were inconclusive.”

The researchers recruited certified oncologists who were able to issue a medical cannabis license to their cancer patients. These oncologists referred interested patients to the study and reported on their disease characteristics.

Bar-Sela said: “Patients completed anonymous questionnaires before starting treatment, and again at several time points during the following six months. We gathered data on a number of factors, including pain measures, analgesics consumption, cancer symptom burden, sexual problems, and side effects.”

Improved symptoms

An analysis of the data revealed that many of the outcome measures improved, with less pain and cancer symptoms. Importantly, the use of opioid and other pain analgesics decreased. 

In fact, almost half of the patients studied stopped all analgesic medications following six months of medicinal cannabis treatment.

“Medical cannabis has been suggested as a possible remedy for appetite loss, however, most patients in this study still lost weight. As a substantial portion were diagnosed with progressive cancer, a weight decline is expected with disease progression,” reported Meiri.

He continued: “Interestingly, we found that sexual function improved for most men but worsened for most women.”

Meiri would like future studies to dig deeper and look at the effectiveness of medicinal cannabis in different groups of cancer patients.

“Although our study was very comprehensive and presented additional perspectives on medical cannabis, the sex, age, and ethnicity, as well as cancer types and the stage of the cancer meant the variety of patients in our study was wide-ranging. Therefore, future studies should investigate the level of effectiveness of medicinal cannabis in specific subgroups of cancer patients with more shared characteristics.”

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Lack of research preventing wider prescribing of cannabis for arthritis

The review found limited progress in understanding the potential of cannabis for the treatment of pain.

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CreakyJoints review article

A lack of research is preventing wider uptake of medical cannabis prescribing for arthritis pain, according to a new review published in the US.

A new review article has found that there has been limited progress in understanding the potential of cannabis-based therapies for the treatment of pain associated with rheumatic conditions in the past five years.

The article concluded that this is primarily due to a lack of standardisation of clinical research and barriers to conducting research due to existing federal and state regulations in the US.

The review, which was published by CreakyJoints, an international digital community for arthritis patients and caregivers, found that the legalisation and decriminalisation of cannabis at a state level in the US reflects changing attitudes about cannabis as use of the drug increases across a broad range of conditions, including rheumatic diseases.

Osteoarthritis: A banner advert for the medical cannabis clinics

Unfortunately, while there is strong preclinical evidence showing that cannabis-based products play a role in alleviating pain and reducing inflammation, the highly variable state and federal statutes have limited patient-centred prospective research, education of clinicians and comfort of patients in disclosing their cannabis use to clinicians.

W. Benjamin Nowell, PhD, director of patient-Centered research at CreakyJoints said: “In 2019, CreakyJoints presented data from our ArthritisPower Research Registry study showing more than half of arthritis patients reported wanting information on or actually had tried cannabis and/or cannabidiol products for a purpose they perceived as medical – often for pain relief and help sleeping.

“Yet, three years later, there’s been virtually no advancement in the research necessary to provide clinical evidence that rheumatologists and patients need to make decisions about cannabis use for symptom relief in combination with approved treatments.”

He added: “Without this research, it is impossible to develop clinical guidelines for medicinal cannabis in the US, which is vital for patients seeking the full range of treatment options to explore in partnership with their physicians. The best way to treat rheumatic conditions is through the use of US Food and Drug Administration approved medications, which are backed by evidence demonstrating their effectiveness and safety profile.”

Only three cannabis-based medications are approved by the US Food and Drug Administration, none of which are for the treatment of pain or other symptoms related to rheumatic conditions.

Lack of research stymying uptake of medical cannabis

Researchers draw attention to an array of studies that have shown that cannabinoids are effective in the laboratory at decreasing inflammation in cells and reducing inflammation and pain in mice and rats.

In addition, studies in humans that support efficacy are primarily surveys of people using medicinal marijuana who report relief of pain. However, in rheumatic diseases, there are very few studies of cannabis-based therapies in humans and the clinical trials conducted to date have small sample sizes and inconsistent methods.

“Although the clinical evidence about cannabis for rheumatic disease pain is lacking, it is nevertheless important to educate patients about the known benefits and risks of alternative treatments, including medical cannabis,” said Dr Stuart Silverman, rheumatologist, clinical professor of medicine, Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and UCLA School of Medicine and medical director, OMC Clinical Research Center.

“As a rheumatologist who treats patients with pain, I am aware that some of my patients have found cannabis to be an effective option when traditional medications fail to reduce their pain.

“I am open to discussing medical cannabis when patients express an interest in its use. Then, if they choose to use it, I follow them closely to monitor efficacy and any side effects and to ensure that they do not consider it as a replacement for FDA-approved disease-modifying drugs.”

CreakyJoints recommends that rheumatologists and healthcare providers be prepared to “discuss medicinal cannabis with their patients in an empathetic, non-biased manner”.

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Study shows safety of using cannabis with opioids 

Findings suggest that CBD and THC are safe for use with opioid pain medication.

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There were over 100,000 opioid-related deaths in America in the last 12 months. 

Researchers in the US have found that using cannabis with opioids does not increase the risk of addiction. 

Findings from a new study suggest that CBD and THC might be safe for use with opioid pain medication, without increasing the risk of addiction.

Although more studies are needed, the results suggest that these compounds, found in cannabis, might be a low-risk way to reduce the dose of opioids needed to relieve pain.

The results show that CBD and THC do not enhance the rewarding effects of opioids, meaning that these compounds may not increase the risk for addiction when used in conjunction with opioid medications.

In the new study, the researchers gave rhesus monkeys the opportunity to choose a food reward or an injection of the opioid fentanyl. 

They then tested whether CBD, THC or mixtures containing both compounds affected the number of times monkeys selected fentanyl over food. 

They found that a wide range of doses of CBD or THC both alone or in a mixture did not increase or decrease the number of times they selected fentanyl.

Medical cannabis is often cited as an alternative pain reliever to opioid medication, with many patients finding they are able to reduce the number of opioids they are taking after being prescribed cannabis. 

According to data from the Center for Disease Control, there were over 100,000 opioid-related deaths in America in the last 12 months. 

Lawrence Carey, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Texas Health Science Center, San Antonio, said: “There is intense interest in using medical marijuana in patients with chronic pain because compounds in marijuana like CBD and THC may produce pain relief themselves or enhance the pain-relieving effects of opioids.

“This means people could potentially use lower doses of opioids and still get relief from pain. Taking less pain medication could also lead to a lowered risk of addiction or physical dependence to opioids.”

He continued: “Giving the animals the opportunity to choose between a drug injection and a food reward helped us to somewhat replicate choices a human drug user may face, such as whether to spend money on drugs or food.

“Having the option of responding for food is also useful for studying drugs like THC that produce sedative effects. It helps demonstrate the animal is reallocating behaviour from drug to food choice instead of simply shutting down response for a drug due to sedation.”

 The researchers are now conducting other studies to assess whether CBD and THC can decrease signs of opioid withdrawal and relapse.

“A big reason why people continue to take opioids after they become addicted is the appearance of withdrawal symptoms,” said Carey. 

“We are using what we learned from this study to determine whether these doses — which didn’t alter choice for food or drug rewards — may help relieve opioid withdrawal or decrease relapse and drug seeking behavior following periods of abstinence.”  

 The researchers caution that opioid use disorder is a complex disease and there are many factors to consider when developing a drug to treat it. 

Although this study indicates that THC and CBD do not increase the rewarding effects of opioids, they say that before applying these findings to people, it will be necessary to determine whether these treatments alter other pathological processes involved with opioid use and to better understand any risks that may be associated with their use.

 

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