Is Cannabis a Good Choice for Chronic Pain Management?

As more and more states in the U.S. take steps to legalize marijuana for medical and recreational use, consumers are left with many questions about its safety and efficacy. One particular area of interest is in the treatment of chronic pain.

With medical cannabis, or more commonly called medical marijuana, being prescribed for everything from fibromyalgia to cancer pain to back pain, it’s no wonder that many patients are seeking out marijuana for pain relief. This increase in marijuana use is cause for concern among experts who warn that medical marijuana may not be the best answer for pain management due to many risk factors. In part, these risks exist because there have not been enough research studies.

More Research is Needed

First and foremost, we need more data. Studies that have been conducted to date focus on cannabidiol (CBD) and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) for pain relief. While it’s true some studies have shown that marijuana is effective in the treatment of neuropathic pain (pain caused by nerve damage), more evidence and research is needed. In 2021, the International Association for the Study of Pain (IASP), issued a statement, saying in part:

“Reviews of preclinical research and clinical safety and efficacy of cannabis and cannabinoids for pain relief have identified important research gaps. Due to the lack of high-quality clinical evidence, IASP does not currently endorse general use of cannabis and cannabinoids for pain relief.”

The IASP went on to say that some clinical trials do show promise, but in addition to further research on effectiveness and side effects, stricter regulations are needed to control production, marketing and labeling of cannabis products.

Caron believes there is a danger in legalizing cannabis products, especially in an unregulated environment that is already burdened without proper funding for education, prevention and treatment and is subject to aggressive marketing tactics making unproven statements as it relates to health.

Research will be critical in learning the factors that play a role in how people develop a cannabis use disorder and gaining a clearer picture on cannabis’ relationship to the development of anxious, depressive, manic and psychotic symptoms.

THC Levels in Marijuana are Increasing

THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, is the chemical in marijuana that causes users to experience a “high.” According to the CDC, the THC concentration found in marijuana samples nearly doubled between 2008 and 2017. While the marijuana of the 1960s and 70s had a THC concentration of around 2% on average. According to Smart Approaches to Marijuana, in 2017, THC concentrates had an average potency of 55.7%. Today, many retailers promote and profit from THC products that contain up to 95 - 99% THC.

Why is this dangerous? First, researchers do not know yet how the use of cannabis with higher levels of THC may affect the brain. In particular, the effect on the developing brains of adolescents and young adults is especially concerning. Second, there is not enough data and research that tells us how the increased THC levels affect the likelihood of patients developing marijuana use disorder. The lack of comprehensive marijuana laws to regulate production and distribution in combination with the prevalence of extremely high THC levels is a recipe for disaster. (To learn more about the current marijuana landscape, addiction, THC concentrations, and more, check out this Caron webinar.)

Marijuana is Not a Good Replacement for Opioids

With the opioid crisis ravaging our nation, many clinicians and patients are looking for alternative pain medications. Experts are warning that medicinal cannabis is not the solution. Contrary to popular belief, marijuana is an addictive substance, so it can be very dangerous for patients who already suffer from opioid use disorder. Additionally, with the legalization of marijuana in many states, we have seen an increase in marijuana use among teens and young adults, whose developing brains are more susceptible to the psychoactive and negative effects of cannabis.

While effectively treating chronic pain patients is an important part of the solution to the opioid crisis, cannabis isn’t the answer. Alternative treatments such as acupuncture, massage, physical therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy are most effective.

Education is Key

The key to preventing a marijuana crisis in this country is marijuana education. Consumers need to be informed about the potential risks and adverse effects associated with marijuana drug abuse, as well as the need for more research into its use in chronic pain management.

An eye-opening example of needing more research to guide decisions is the recent recall of hundreds of types of cannabis concentrates for vaping by the Pennsylvania Department of Health. Many of the products had been on the market and approved for medical use since 2018, causing concerns among patients who believed the products to be safe. The prevalence of marijuana vaping is especially troubling among adolescents. Click here to learn more about the dangers of marijuana and vaping, and how to prevent it.

The bottom line is that more research is needed to determine whether cannabis is a safe and effective pain-relieving treatment. Lack of regulation on legalized medical and recreational marijuana makes it dangerous for users. We know that marijuana use can lead to addiction and can have harmful effects on developing brains. It’s important to understand that making it legal does not make it safe.

If you or a loved one are struggling with addiction, Caron can help. Contact us today to learn more about our treatment programs.

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