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Study Finds Cannabis May Not Be Effective at Treating Chronic Pain

Using self-reported data from non-cancer chronic pain patients over four years, the study found that cannabis users had worse outcomes than non-users.

Adam Drury

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Study Finds Cannabis May Not Be Effective at Treating Chronic Pain
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Pain management is one of the most common reasons people turn to medical cannabis. Chronic pain is a qualifying condition virtually everywhere medical marijuana is legal. And numerous scientific studies alongside overwhelming anecdotal evidence testify to cannabis’ effectiveness in treating pain.

But a new study out of Australia is challenging this consensus. According to researchers, cannabis may not be as effective a pain reliever as many think.

New Study Finds Cannabis May Not Help With Pain or Reduce Opioid Use

A new study published in The Lancet and funded by the National Health and Medical Research Council and the Australian Government is challenging some firmly held assumptions about medical cannabis.

Human studies on the effects of cannabis are still rare, due to legal restrictions that hinder research. And that makes the human studies we do have particularly important.

No study is definitive in its conclusions. They’re worth paying attention to, however, since scientific grounding is one of the most persuasive ways to argue for legalization.

Here’s Why You Should Care About This New Study On Cannabis and Pain

In the halls of government across the country and around the world, politicians are intensely debating the merits of legalizing medical marijuana.

In places where medical cannabis advocates have already won those debates, scientific evidence has proved crucial. Overwhelmingly, cannabis is approved as a treatment for chronic pain and pain management.

And in light of the U.S.’s ongoing opioid crisis, medical cannabis is increasingly hailed as a “reverse gateway” drug that can reduce patients’ dependency on addictive opioid painkillers.

Australia’s new study looks at each of those arguments, measuring cannabis’ effectiveness in treating pain and reducing opioid use.

Its findings will prove crucial for discussions about medical marijuana going forward, and could even shape policy debates. And that’s why you should care about it.

Who and What Did Researchers Study?

This month, The Lancet Public Health journal published an article representing the culmination of a four-year study on cannabis and pain.

The study, titled “Effect of cannabis use in people with chronic non-cancer pain prescribed opioids: findings from a 4-year prospective cohort study,” used observational methods to measure the effectiveness of cannabis for treating pain.

Specifically, the study recruited patients without cancer-related pain who were also taking prescription opioid painkillers.

The study recruited 1514 participants, beginning in 2012. Researchers asked participants a series of questions at multiple points during the duration of the study, ending with a 4-year follow-up.

Researchers asked questions about:

  • their lifetime cannabis use and cannabis use in the past-12 months
  • the number of days they used cannabis in the past month
  • their lifetime and past-year chronic pain conditions
  • the duration of their pain
  • pain self-efficacy
  • current depression and generalized anxiety disorder

These questions were not only aimed at yielding information about how well cannabis can treat non-cancer chronic pain, but also about marijuana’s potential side effects. Depression and anxiety, for example, are common mood effects that can effect cannabis users.

What Did Researchers Find?

In the first place, researchers found that among non-cancer chronic pain patients, cannabis use was common. By their four-year follow-up, 24 percent of the 1514 participants had used cannabis for pain.

Over the four-year duration of the study, interest in cannabis pain treatments rose substantially. At the beginning of the study, only 33 percent of participants had an interest. By year four, that number rose to 60 percent.

Still, a majority of the study’s participants (+75 percent) did not use cannabis for pain. And compared to those that did, non-users had better outcomes, according to the data.

Specifically, researchers concluded that “compared with people with no cannabis use, we found that participants who used cannabis had a greater pain interference score, lower pain self-efficacy scores, and greater generalized anxiety disorder severity scores.”

The study also found that cannabis users had a greater pain severity score than those who did not use cannabis.

Interestingly, however, those who used cannabis daily or near-daily had slightly lower pain severity scores than participants who less frequently used cannabis.

Ultimately, the researchers concluded they had found no evidence of any temporal relationship between cannabis use and pain severity or pain interference.

In short, they didn’t find anything to suggest cannabis is good for non-cancer chronic pain—at least for these patients.

The researchers found even more discouraging results in their study of cannabis use and opioid reduction. “We found no evidence that cannabis use reduced prescribed opioid use or increased rates of opioid discontinuation.”

In other words, cannabis didn’t help pain patients get off or even use opioids less often.

What The Australia Study’s Findings Mean For The Future of Medical Marijuana

For many who’ve grown accustomed to the idea that cannabis use is good for treating pain, the study’s findings can be tough to swallow.

But it’s important to remember that of the 1514 participants, just 24 percent used cannabis for pain during the four-year study, whereas there are tens of thousands of people (by a modest estimate) who use legal medical cannabis for pain management.

And that’s why researchers interpreted their findings by calling for more large, well-designed clinical trials.

Non-cancer chronic pain patients suffer from complex co-morbidities. Observational studies alone can’t offer the final word about cannabis and health outcomes, especially in these cases.

Furthermore, the researchers acknowledge that they only recorded the frequency of patients’ cannabis use. They did not collect any data about the quantity or type of cannabis.

And those are huge variables, making reliably measuring total cannabis consumption, let alone CBD and THC quantities, nearly impossible.

Additionally, cannabis was illegal in Australia during the length of the study. So cannabis use could have been underreported in the first place.

Those question marks are large enough that anyone should take the study’s findings with a grain of salt. Still, its results are very much worth our attention, given the centrality of pain in the issue of medical marijuana.

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