Throughout the past few years, evidence has emerged showing that cannabis is an effective alternative to opioid painkillers. Not only have states with medical marijuana laws on the books experienced decreases in the number of prescriptions filled for pain medications, some of them, like New York and Illinois, are now even moving to allow chronic pain patients to have access to the herb to crawl out of the darkness of addiction. But is it also possible that cannabis can make pain worse? A new study published in the journal Patient Safety in Surgery suggests that in some cases it can.
It all began after a number of trauma patients in Colorado, some of which used cannabis on occasion for one reason or another, “required higher than normal amount of narcotics” to manage their pain. Researchers said the only link these patients had was marijuana. So, they decided to dig a little deeper into this conundrum to see if there was any evidence to support the “anecdotal observation” that the combination of opioids and pot were making it more difficult to control severe pain.
To accomplish this task, the team tracked down around 260 patients who had been injured in automobile accidents and were being treated in trauma units in both Colorado and Texas. Researchers said that 21 percent of them tested positive for marijuana, while 6 percent reported using the herb on a regular basis. Another 9 percent had hard drugs, like amphetamines, in their systems. Strangely enough, researchers found that the patients who used only marijuana needed 25-37 percent more opioids than those patients who did not. The situation took a bizarre turn when researchers asked the patients to rank their pain on a scale of 0-to-10. Although not a huge difference, marijuana users replied with an average of 4.9, while the non-users averaged 4.2.
“These preliminary data suggest that marijuana use, especially chronic use, may affect pain response to injury by requiring greater use of opioid analgesia,” the study author’s concluded. “These results were less pronounced in patients who used other drugs.
In an interview with Live Science, Dr. Anne Wagner, medical director at the UCHealth Burn Center in Aurora, Colorado, who, it’s worth noting, was not affiliated with the study, said her staff has noticed this phenomenon, as well. It seems that patients suffering from burns require “much higher doses of opioids” and end up spending more time in the hospital than those who do not use the herb. This can be problematic since consuming opioids in higher doses can increase the risk of addiction and a variety of other health problems.
But cannabis is supposed to help ease pain, not cause it to flare up. Furthermore, the herb is known for getting people off opioids, not put them in the position of needing more. Some of the latest research supports the optimistic side of this argument. A survey conducted by Northwell Health in conjunction with the New York State Department of Health finds that medical marijuana is an effective alternative to opioid painkillers — especially in people over 60.
“What we found was that the patients overwhelmingly had a reduction in their pain with medical cannabis and a reduction in their use of painkillers of all kinds,” Dr. Diana Martins-Welch, a co-author of the study, told Newsday. She said 65 percent of the respondents reported chronic pain relief.
New York recently added “opioid use” to its medical marijuana program’s list of qualified conditions.
Researchers are unsure about how or why cannabis use may cause problems for patients suffering from severe pain. They admit that a deeper exploration needs to be done in order to get a grip on this topic.
Nevertheless, this is not the first time cannabis has been considered more of a culprit for pain sufferers than a cure. Some pain patients, namely those dealing with it in a post-surgery situation, say medical marijuana is not enough to cut through their suffering. These are the people who call opioids “an invaluable medical resource,” and argue that cannabis could never replace them.
Yet some patients claim medical marijuana is all they need post surgery. Former NBA Star Al Harrington, who, for years, took prescription medications to both minor and major injuries, recently told Cannabis Now that cannabidiol (CBD) is all he uses these days to conquer pain. “I’ve had three more surgeries. And after each, I got prescribed Vicodin and OxyContin. I promise I have not taken them. I use cannabis and I use CBD,” he said.
TELL US, have you ever used cannabis for pain?