Study Finds Medical Cannabis Reduces Cancer Patients’ Pain and Need for Opiates

Researchers in Israel found that the use of medical cannabis reduced cancer patients’ pain and use of painkillers in a recently published study.
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A study released last week has determined that cancer patients who used medical cannabis reported less pain and reduced their need for powerful opiate painkillers. The research also found that medical cannabis (MC) was well tolerated and reduced other cancer-related symptoms, according to a report on the study by Neuroscience News.

“The results of this study suggest that MC treatment is generally safe for oncology patients and can potentially reduce the burden of associated symptoms with no serious MC-related adverse effects,” the authors wrote in an abstract for the study, which was published by the peer-reviewed journal Frontiers in Pain Research.

The study was conducted by a team of Israeli researchers, who noted that the use of medical cannabis by cancer patients is on the rise. However, there is a lack of long-term clinical trials to assess the safety and efficacy of medical weed for patients undergoing treatment for cancer.

“Traditionally, cancer-related pain is mainly treated by opioid analgesics, but most oncologists perceive opioid treatment as hazardous, so alternative therapies are required,” explained researcher David Meiri, assistant professor at the Technion Israel Institute of Technology and one of the study’s authors. “Our study is the first to assess the possible benefits of medical cannabis for cancer-related pain in oncology patients; gathering information from the start of treatment, and with repeated follow-ups for an extended period of time, to get a thorough analysis of its effectiveness.”

Study co-author Gil Bar-Sela, associate professor at the Ha’Emek Medical Center Afula, said that many cancer patients expressed the desire for alternatives to opiates, which carry a high risk of addiction. Feedback from patients inspired the team of researchers to investigate the benefits of medical cannabis.

“We encountered numerous cancer patients who asked us whether medical cannabis treatment can benefit their health,” said Bar-Sela. “Our initial review of existing research revealed that actually not much was known regarding its effectiveness, particularly for the treatment of cancer-related pain, and of what was known, most findings were inconclusive.”

To complete the study, the researchers recruited oncologists who have been certified to issue licenses to use medical cannabis to their patients. The oncologists then referred patients who were interested in the study to the researchers. The oncologists also assisted by reporting the traits of their patients’ cancer to the researchers as the study progressed.

“Patients completed anonymous questionnaires before starting treatment, and again at several time points during the following six months,” Bar-Sela noted. “We gathered data on a number of factors, including pain measures, analgesics consumption, cancer symptom burden, sexual problems, and side effects.”

Nearly Half of Patients Ended Their Use of Painkillers

Analysis of the collected data revealed an improvement in many outcome measurements, including a reduction in pain and other symptoms of cancer. The researchers also noticed a reduction in the use of opiates and other painkillers, with nearly half of the patients in the study reporting they had stopped using analgesic painkillers after six months of using medical cannabis.

However, the researchers did not see evidence of other positive outcomes that have been previously associated with the use of medical pot by cancer patients.

“Medical cannabis has been suggested as a possible remedy for appetite loss, however, most patients in this study still lost weight,” said Meiri. “As a substantial portion were diagnosed with progressive cancer, a weight decline is expected with disease progression.”

“Interestingly, we found that sexual function improved for most men, but worsened for most women,” Meiri continued.

The researchers suggested further study, including research into the effectiveness of medical cannabis for patients with different types of cancer.

“Although our study was very comprehensive and presented additional perspectives on medical cannabis, the sex, age, and ethnicity, as well as cancer types and the stage of the cancer meant the variety of patients in our study was wide-ranging,” explained Meiri. “Therefore, future studies should investigate the level of effectiveness of medicinal cannabis in specific subgroups of cancer patients with more shared characteristics.”

The findings are consistent with other research, including a separate study published earlier this year that found that patients with osteoarthritis (OA), the most common form of arthritis, also saw a reduction in their use of pain medications after beginning treatment with medical cannabis.

“Our findings indicate that providing access to MC, helps patients with chronic pain due to OA reduce their levels of opioid usage in addition to improving pain and QoL [quality of life]. Furthermore, a majority of patients did not feel intoxicated or high from MC, and of those who did, only a small percentage said it interfered with their daily activities,”  the authors wrote in the study, as quoted by the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. “Our findings support the literature in that MC reduces the use of opioids for the treatment of chronic pain.”

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