Chronic pain is a condition that affects millions of people around the world. A broad number of therapeutic solutions have been employed to treat chronic pain, including powerful prescription medications. Of these medications, opioid-based painkillers have been widely used. These medications are not without their hazards, however; with a high potential for abuse and a growing number of opioid-related overdose deaths, medical professionals around the world are now seeking safer alternatives for treating pain.
Medical cannabis has shown promise in limited trials, and in fact this alternative was discussed at the International Conference on Opioids, a three-day medical conference held in Boston, Massachusetts. The so-called “opioid epidemic” was discussed at length as physicians, pain management specialists, and caregivers alike seek to treat pain without the potential harmful effects of powerful opioid-based drugs.
Cannabis for Treating Pain?
There are hundreds of active chemical compounds in cannabis in a class referred to as cannabinoids, but the two receiving the most attention are tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD). THC is the psychoactive compound that creates feelings of euphoria, leading to the “high” desired by recreational marijuana users. CBD, on the other hand, is not psychoactive, and has been shown to reduce the severity and duration of pain in limited clinical trials. CBD does not appear to be beneficial in acute pain settings, but for chronic pain, it shows great promise as an alternative to opioid medications.
As patients experience chronic pain for successive months, physiological and chemical changes take place in their bodies. Receptors for cannabinoids increase, improving the response to the analgesic effects of CBD. Pain which originates in the nervous system, called neuropathic pain, is especially responsive to CBD. Patients afflicted with neuralgia, strokes, multiple sclerosis, and a host of other pain conditions report a significant reduction in pain, both in the level of pain as well as its duration. Medical professionals believe that CBD-based pain medications may serve best as an alternative when conventional therapies have not produced the desired results, or in cases where the harmful effects of opioids outweigh their potential for mitigating pain.
Delivery Systems for CBD and Quality Control
Traditionally, medical marijuana has been smoked by patients to provide relief for a number of health conditions. The medical profession, however, realizes that inhalation of smoke can create unpleasant side effects. Research has been conducted into other means of delivering the therapeutic benefits of cannabidiol (CBD). These other means include CBD-infused edible products and delivery systems that vaporize the active compounds without combustion. In clinical trials, CBD tinctures, edibles, and vaporization systems have all been shown to be as effective as inhalation in treating chronic pain.
One area the medical community wishes to see improvements in is the quality control and consistency of medical cannabis products on the market, asserts Dr. Grewal. Patients have been self-medicating for decades, and products on the market vary in quality. Standardization efforts, particularly in laboratory assays and product labeling initiatives, can work to help patients understand dosages and percentages of active chemical compounds, leading to improved patient outcomes. Further research is needed, of course, to gain understanding in dosages and dose response in patients afflicted with chronic pain conditions.
A Safer Alternative
Despite the limited clinical evidence showing medical cannabis as effective in treating chronic pain, patients around the world and a growing number of medical professionals believe that this naturally-derived substance represents a safe path forward. Opioid-related deaths have reached staggering levels, causing pain management specialists to seek safe, effective alternatives to traditional pharmacotherapies involving opioids. Medical cannabis will continue to be studied, and may one day serve as a replacement therapy for the potential harmful opioid-based medications.