Chronic Pain and Marijuana


by Trey Reckling (originally published in The Fresh Toast)

Hit your thumb with a hammer. There, now you have a perfect example of acute pain, a temporary, intensely uncomfortable feeling that will probably fade once the tissue heals and swelling subsides. Chronic pain, on the other hand, does not simply fade away but is persistent, lasting for months and longer for some people. Chronic pain greatly affects a person's life and is debilitating in severe cases.

Chronic pain affects nearly 80 million Americans. That’s more than those who suffer with diabetes, cancer, and heart disease, combined. Chronic pain is a condition that is often misunderstood. There was no obvious “hammer” but the pain is real and is fiercely persistent.

What brings relief? Often the treatment options are NSAID medicines (ibuprofen or acetaminophen) or prescription opiates, like hydrocodone and oxycodone. Even the FDA stated that NSAIDS can be dangerous, especially with prolonged use. Today Americans use over 80% of the world's opiates and about 99% of the global hydrocortisone supply. Opiates are not only addictive but can be deadly.

So, what about medical marijuana? Could patients ditch their pills for pot? Some are already doing just that. A study of Medicaid reimbursed prescriptions in 17 states with medical marijuana found that the average physician prescribed 1,826 fewer doses of painkillers in one year. On top of that, a study from researchers from University of Pennsylvania and Johns Hopkins found, “States with medical cannabis laws had a 24.8% lower mean annual opioid overdose mortality rate.”

The detail of how it works it up for some debate. We know that our endocannabinoid system regulates many body systems like sleep, appetite and pain management, to name a few. It seems that cannabis does not eliminate the pain but may make it easier to tolerate. In an Oxford University study, MRI scans showed an area in the brain which affects the emotional aspects of pain, “became less active after participants took THC.”

What if a new medicine came on the scene offering to help people cope with pain? What if it could replace more dangerous and more addictive medicines? What if, unlike other available options, it had a nearly impossible overdose threshold? It’s not new. In fact, medical use of cannabis predates all existing pharmacology patents.We are simply getting reacquainted with a reliable, timeless friend.