Cannabis or Opioids for Chronic Pain? Check Out This Study

Getting a leg up on pain has been part of the human condition for as long as there have been humans. Physical pain has always been part of the equation.

And the more science is given the chance to study cannabis as a viable option, the better cannabis looks for pain relief, especially against opioids.

Cannabis vs opioids for pain

CNN reports that a study in the online journal JAMA (the Journal of the American Medical Association) shows that synthetic cannabinoids seem to be at least as effective as opioids in easing pain, and without the negative side effects like vomiting and constipation that go with opioids. The study comes as federal and state agencies have been cracking down on the prescription of opioids, whose pain relief capabilities have to be balanced with it being “a gateway to physical dependence and addiction.”

Medical marijuana and pain medication

While the prescription of opioids is falling into disfavor is some areas, two new studies suggest that there is room for cannabis to fill the gap.

Researchers found that states that allow the use of cannabis for medical purposes had 2.21 million fewer daily doses of opioids prescribed per year under Medicare Part D, compared with those states without medical cannabis laws. Opioid prescriptions under Medicaid also dropped by 5.88 percent in states with medical cannabis laws compared with states without such laws, according to the studies.

This is not new knowledge. A 2014 study showed that states with medical cannabis laws had almost 25 percent fewer opioid overdose deaths between 1999-2010. A 2017 study found that the legalization of recreational marijuana in Colorado in 2012 reversed the state’s upward trend in opioid related deaths.

“This study adds one more brick in the wall in the argument that cannabis clearly has medical applications,” says David Bradford, professor of public administration and policy at the University of Georgia and a lead author of the Medicare study.

“And for pain patients in particular, our work adds to the argument that cannabis can be effective.”

Research into alternatives for opioids seems to be heating up with the United States suffering through what some call the worst opioid epidemic the world has ever seen. Opioid overdose has risen in the last decade and a half with the drug being implicated in more than 500,000 deaths since 2000, which is more than the number of Americans killed in World War II.

The Atlanta-based CDC (Center for Disease Control and Prevention) described chronic pain as “lasting longer than three months or past the time of normal tissue healing.” Chronic pain is among the top reasons for seeking medical care in the United States. In 2016, one CDC report estimated that about 50 million people, or 20 percent of all adults, sought remedies for chronic pain. Other estimates suggest that number is as much as twice that.

“As somebody who treats patients with opioid use disorders, this crisis is very real,” said Dr. Kevin Hill, an addiction psychiatrist at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School.

Cannabinoid opioid interaction

“All drugs of abuse operate using some shared pathways. For example, cannabinoid receptors and opioid receptors coincidentally happen to be located very close by in many places in the brain. So, it stands to reason that a medication that affects one system might affect the other.”

However, research has shown that marijuana, the plant that produces cannabinoids, has little addiction potential, and virtually no deaths have been reported from marijuana overdose.

What these findings suggest is that vs opioids, medical cannabis deserves far more study as an option with fewer side effects that may in the long run be a more effective remedy for chronic pain patients.

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