- Cannabis may have the potential to help people deal with the symptoms of chronic pain.
- Unfortunately, there is only a small amount of strong clinical research on the effects of cannabis.
- According to experts, the study of cannabis and chronic pain is both extremely complex and full of legal and regulatory hurdles.
- Without more information, it’s difficult for doctors to know whether cannabis could benefit their patients.
- Both patients and clinicians remain interested in cannabis as a potentially safer alternative to opioids for pain management.
Is cannabis a good choice for treating chronic pain?
That’s a question shared by doctors, researchers, and people living with chronic pain. But it’s a surprisingly difficult one to answer.
A recent review of cannabis products in the journal Annals of Internal Medicine looked at the existing body of knowledge related to this question.
And the answer? We just don’t have enough information to know for sure.
So how did we get here?
Cannabis and the compounds related to it — collectively referred to as cannabinoids — can include chemicals such as tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD).
These compounds have found their way into a variety of products from chocolates and candies to body balms and massage oils over the last decade. During that time, Washington DC and 19 states legalized recreational cannabis use, while an additional 37 states legalized medical uses for cannabinoids.
The state-level legalization and expansion of the cannabinoid market are complicated by the fact that at a federal level, cannabis is still classified as an illegal Schedule I substance under the Controlled Substances Act.
According to the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), the schedule system accounts for a substance’s potential for abuse and habit formation, safety, and medical uses. Schedule I substances are considered to have the highest potential for abuse and no acceptable medical uses.
In the case of cannabis, this classification was made more than half a century ago. And it’s just one of several challenges for researchers.
Dr. Vernon Williams, a board certified neurologist, pain management specialist, and director of the Center for Sports Neurology and Pain Medicine at Cedars-Sinai Kerlan-Jobe Institute in Los Angeles told Healthline that chronic pain is complicated to study.
“It’s not just about an electrical signal,” Williams said. “There are emotional and environmental conditions that affect pain, as well as expectation and other contributing factors.”
“There’s a very strong placebo response in pain studies that can be difficult to overcome in clinical trials. Then there are the realities that chronic pain can be caused by so many different and varying etiologies, that pain is subjective, and that it is so complex,” he said.
“But the other social, legal and political aspects of cannabinoids further complicate the ability to easily study their effects on chronic pain,” Williams added.
Daniele Piomelli, Ph.D., director of the Center for the Study of Cannabis at the University of California, Irvine, told Healthline he agreed there are many obstacles to cannabis research.
“In addition to regulatory hurdles, which for cannabis are greater than most other drugs, [the] cost is a problem. Funding a large clinical study without a corporate sponsor (e.g., a pharmaceutical company) is virtually impossible,” Piomelli said.
If cannabinoid research is so difficult, why should we even pursue it?
One reason could be to cut down on the use of opioids.
“The main current treatment for chronic pain [is] the opioids, which don’t work well in chronic pain, are highly addictive and are rife with side effects. So, unsurprisingly, many persons living with pain are hopeful about cannabis,” said Piomelli.
Another reason to study cannabinoids is to make sure that doctors and patients have a complete understanding of what risks come with their use.
The new review lists potential side effects of cannabis-based products, including dizziness, sedation, and nausea. Other possible effects that need further confirmation include psychosis, cannabis use disorder, and cognitive defects.
“The assumption that cannabinoids are ‘harmless’ is a view held by many lay individuals, but there are clearly risks associated with the use of cannabinoids that must be considered, studied, and reported,” said Williams.
And, most importantly, cannabinoids should be studied to find out if they’re actually effective at treating chronic pain.
“The National Academy of Sciences committee charged with assessing the health effects of cannabis and cannabinoids concluded, in 2017, that there is
“But substantial evidence is not conclusive evidence, which is what we need now.”