For the past two decades, the cannabis plant, commonly known as marijuana, has been a topic of interest in the medical community. In some states, medical marijuana is already available for certain conditions. Its efficacy as a pain reliever has been widely proven. While cannabis is most commonly associated with relieving cancer pain and loss of appetite, its analgesic properties may show promise for those with back pain, fibromyalgia, and several other chronic pain conditions.
How does cannabis relieve pain?
Just like the opioid receptor system in the body that allows endorphins to have their pleasurable, pain-relieving effects, the body also has a cannabinoid receptor system. There are three types of cannabinoids: endocannabinoids (made by the body), phytocannabinoids (made by marijuana plants), and synthetic cannabinoids produced in a lab.
The cannabis plant contains several cannabinoids, each with its qualities. The three main components for this discussion are tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), cannabidiol (CBD), and beta-caryophyllene. THC is a mild pain reliever and the main psychoactive component of marijuana. CBD reduces spasms, inflammation, nausea, and anxiety. Beta-caryophyllene is a potent anti-inflammatory cannabinoid found in the highest concentration of cannabis essential oils.
The most recent theory of fibromyalgia suggests that patients’ brains process pain abnormally or that excessive pain signals are being sent to the brain. Increasing the number of cannabinoids available to the body can help counter fibromyalgia pain. A small study, the results of which were published in the April issue of PLoS One, found that fibromyalgic cannabis users reported significant reductions in pain and stiffness.
Chronic back pain is often accompanied by inflammation, muscle spasms, and nerve pain. Cannabis has been shown to relieve all of these symptoms, although studies of neuropathic pain relief have been the most prominent. A small study led by Mark Ware, MD, tested the effects of cannabis of varying THC potency on pain relief.
Some sources estimate that street marijuana contains 10-15% THC, more than is needed for pain relief. This may answer an important question for those considering medical marijuana: should I get high? The answer is no. Since THC is the main psychoactive component in marijuana, lowering the level and increasing the CBD level will result in fewer psychological effects while still relieving the pain. There are clinics in states that allow medical marijuana that offers CBD and low THC strains of cannabis.
Marijuana is classified as an illegal substance, which has created a stigma around it. More and more, science is discovering the therapeutic effects of this plant and even working on synthesizing the cannabinoids in the laboratory. Until the safety of the synthetic compounds is supported by solid evidence, however, it is most advisable to refer to nature’s source.
Some are concerned about potential drug dependence. However, many prescribed relievers, including opioids, are highly addictive. Cannabis has been shown to limit opioid dependence. Besides the usual addiction, which concerns medication, there is no evidence that cannabis causes dependence problems. A host of other adverse health effects associated with common pain relievers, such as stomach, kidney, and liver damage, as well as overdose, are not associated with marijuana use.
The most popular method of cannabis use is smoking. Lung and throat irritation are valid concerns for people considering medical marijuana for long-term pain management. Further research is needed to assess the efficacy of cannabis administered orally or through a ventilator.
As with all pain relievers, cannabis is not the cure for a painful condition. Rather, it is a useful pain management tool that should be used to temporarily relieve symptoms while pursuing a treatment plan that attacks the source of your pain.
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