There has been plenty of recent research affirming that medical cannabis is indeed a suitable alternative to opioids, with many users finding they are able to reduce or eliminate opioid use entirely after maintaining a medical cannabis regimen. Now, one study is taking a closer look at the specific holistic effects that both medical cannabis and opioids provide to get more insight on the efficacy of each substance as it pertains to chronic pain management.
The recent study, “The holistic effects of medical cannabis compared to opioids on pain experience in Finnish patients with chronic pain,” was conducted by a team of researchers from Åbo Akademi University, who looked into the effects of medical cannabis and opioids for chronic pain treatment.
Published in the Journal of Cannabis Research, the study aimed to take a closer look at how effective medical cannabis is compared to traditional opioids in treating chronic pain, as cannabis use for symptom management has become increasingly more common in recent years. Results suggested that opioids and cannabis are both “equally efficacious” at mitigating pain intensity in patients with chronic pain, while cannabis offered more “holistic” relief in improving sleep, focus and emotional wellbeing
Comparing Opioids and Medical Cannabis for Pain Relief
To investigate the efficacy of both substances, researchers had subjects complete retrospective surveys to measure the positive and negative phenomenological effects of both cannabis and opioids.
The sample included 201 chronic pain patients, with 40 who used medical cannabis and 161 who used opioids to treat pain. Each group had some crossover, with about 45% of medical cannabis patients reporting the use of opioids to treat pain and about 4.3% of opioid users having used medical cannabis.
Participants were asked to evaluate statements detailing positive and negative effects of their medications, with researchers comparing scores from the two groups.
While neither opioids nor medical cannabis are first-line treatments for chronic pain, researchers noted that both are commonly used when other treatments cannot provide sufficient relief. Recreational users of cannabis or opioids or people who used either substance to treat conditions other than chronic pain were also “explicitly asked not to partake in the study.”
The analysis revealed three experience factors: negative side effects, positive holistic effects and positive emotional effects. The medical cannabis group received higher scores than the opioid group in the positive emotional effects and holistic positive effects, with no difference in negative effects.
Chronic Pain Treatment: Medical Cannabis More Beneficial Than Opioids?
Ultimately, researchers concluded from the self-ported data that, while both medical cannabis and opioids were “perceived to be equally efficacious in reducing pain intensity,” medical cannabis positively affects broader factors related to pain, like emotion, functionality and an overall sense of wellbeing.
“Both MC and opioids were perceived to reduce pain intensity equally well. The group differences support the hypothesis that the effects of [medical cannabis] on pain are more holistic than those of opioids,” authors state. The study also notes that the strongest difference between the two groups — which were more commonly reported in the medical cannabis group — were deeper relaxation, better sleep, improved mood and the ability to feel pain without reacting to it.
“In sum, the results lend support to the notion that the psychoactive effects of MC are relevant to its therapeutic effect on pain, in line with suggestions in previous literature,” authors said. However, they noted that their use of “psychoactive” isn’t in reference to something producing an altered state of consciousness or distorting perception, but “instead something that holistically alters consciousness to a more positive direction, or towards ‘normality.’”
Researchers also said that there were no indications of medical cannabis distorting cognitive processes. Instead, it was perceived to improve memory, focus and clarity of thought.
“The results of the present study underline that the psychoactive effects of [medical cannabis] can be therapeutically positive and have beneficial effects on mood and functioning,” authors conclude. “However, this conclusion would require more robust testing, ideally in randomized controlled trials.”