Sufferers of chronic pain have been faced with a perilous decision—risk a crippling addiction to opioids or find a way to live with the pain. A new clinical study has focused on medical cannabis as an alternative to opioids, and the results may be a turning point towards a safe, plant-based option for easing pain
A new study published in the European Journal of Internal Medicine represents hope for millions of sufferers of chronic pain. Researchers at the Cannabis Clinical Research Institute at Soroka University Medical Center, and Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU), found that medical cannabis can significantly reduce chronic pain without adverse effects, particularly among adults aged 65 and older. Use of cannabis, aka medical marijuana, was found to be both safe and effective for elderly patients experiencing pain because of another medical condition, such as cancer, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, and post-traumatic stress disorder.
One of the head researchers in this study, Prof. Victor Novack, M.D., is a professor of medicine in the BGU Faculty of Health Sciences (FOHS), as well as BGU’s Chair in Internal Medicine. He also heads the Soroka Cannabis Clinical Research Institute. According to Prof. Novack, M.D
“Older patients represent a large and growing population of medical cannabis users, [yet] few studies have addressed how it affects this particular group, which also suffers from dementia, frequent falls, mobility problems, and hearing and visual impairments.”
The study surveyed 2,736 patients aged 65 years and older, at the inception of medical cannabis treatment, and throughout the 33-month study period. Surveys indicated the most common reasons for using cannabis were pain (66.6%) and cancer (60.8%). Methods of ingestion included cannabis-infused oils and smoking or vaporizing the herb. After six months of cannabis therapy, researchers provided a follow-up questionnaire which sought to determine any changes to pain intensity and quality of life, as well as any adverse events that were experienced. 901 of the original respondents replied.
After 6-months of medical marijuana treatment (all statistics are +/-):
- 94% reported an improved overall condition, and a 50% reduction in pain
- 60% reported improved quality of life, from “bad” or “very bad” to “good” or “very good”
- 70% reported moderate to significant improvement in their condition
- 20% of respondents stopped using opioids or reduced their dose
Notably, the most common side effects reported were mild: dizziness (9.7%) and dry mouth (7.1%), a far cry from the high-percentage of opioid-related deaths that are linked to chronic pain. BGU researchers believe that utilizing cannabis may decrease the use of other prescription medications, including opioids, and encourage further research into this plant-based alternative, especially as it relates to an aging population.
Chronic pain is a problem that affects an estimated 100 million Americans. It is also one of the most significant public health problems in the United States, with an estimated cost to society of $560-$635 billion annually, an amount equal to about $2,000 for every person living in the U.S.Meanwhile, the nation’s growing opioid epidemic sees 1 of every 550 chronic opioid users dying within three years of their first opioid prescription. While natural alternatives to deadly opiates are rarely offered by medical doctors, medical marijuana may be the drug that bridges this senseless gap. Research is beginning to mount that shows more promise than the medical establishment can long ignore.
Neuropathy is a type of chronic pain that presents as tingling and numbness in the hands and feet, often due to nerve damage from complications of cancer or diabetes, among other causes. A 2017 meta-analysis of prior studies on neuropathy found that cannabis, particularly selected isolates called cannabinoids, can provide analgesic benefit in patients with chronic neuropathy. Cannabis can also be used as an adjunct to other pain therapies, potentially lowering the amount of dangerous synthetic medication that is required to relieve pain. A recent study on the Opioid-Sparing Effect of Cannabinoids found that when cannabinoids were administered with opioids, specifically morphine, nearly four times less morphine was needed to achieve the same analgesic effect. This presents further evidence for cannabis as a means of reducing cases of opiate dependency and death.
While the politics of cannabis are exceedingly complex, the truth of this miraculous plant is becoming increasingly obvious: it heals the human body. The fact that it does so without the need for a black-box warning of Serious Adverse Events ensures that cannabis is the future of medicine. While clinical studies in the United States have been impeded due to cannabis’s classification as a Schedule One Controlled Substance (meaning the substance has no medicinal value), other countries have taken the lead. A UK study seeking to reduce chronic pain in advanced cancer patients not fully relieved from use of opioids, found that a cannabis extract composed of THC (Tetrahydrocannabinol) and CBD (Cannabidiol), two of the active constituents in cannabis, reduced pain by more than 30% from baseline when compared with placebo, with no serious adverse effects.
Beyond the realm of chronic pain, cannabis has been shown to positively support individuals dealing with post-traumatic stress. It has demonstrated effectiveness at calming the often-debilitating side effects of inflammatory bowel disease, aka Crohn’s disease. Isolates from the cannabis plant have shown promise at treating “incurable” diseases such as Grave’s disease and brain cancer, and work better than traditional medications for Alzheimer’s disease. With so much evidence of profound medicinal value, legislation based on old systems of control will not long hold back the tide. There are simply too many health benefits to be obtained from the cannabis plant.
 Service Use Preceding Opioid-Related Fatality. Olfson, Wall, Wang, Crystal, Blanco. Am J Psychiatry. 2017 Nov 28:appiajp201717070808. doi: 10.1176/appi.ajp.2017.17070808.
 Institute of Medicine Report from the Committee on Advancing Pain Research, Care, and Education: Relieving Pain in America, A Blueprint for Transforming Prevention, Care, Education and Research. The National Academies Press, 2011. http://books.nap.edu/openbook.php?record_id=13172&page=1.