Pain is our body's way of letting us know that we are in danger of injury or illness. For those who suffer from chronic pain, which is defined by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) as pain lasting more than 12 weeks, their pain is not a message of threat but a permanent condition of heightened stress.
For as long as people have suffered from pain, they have sought relief. In fact, marijuana has been used for pain relief for centuries. Cannabis has been used as an analgesic and an anti-inflammatory in treating pain for more than 3000 years. But it has only been in the past 20 years that researchers have begun studying and understanding how cannabis can help those in pain.
Research on Cannabis and Pain
One of the components of cannabis, delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), has been shown to successfully block the cannabinoid receptors in the body. These receptors, which are responsible for maintaining homeostasis function in pain circuits, help to cycle the stimulus from the pain receptors. They also play a role in inflammation by interacting with the cannabinoid receptors. THC can interrupt the inflammatory process, which helps decrease pain.
Canada Leads the Way
Canada has led the way in using medical marijuana for treating pain. They have approved the use of cannabis for treating severe pain in patients with:
- Spinal cord injuries or disease
- Multiple sclerosis
- HIV/AIDS infections
More recently, researchers have found that smoking cannabis can reduce neuropathic pain. Neuropathic pain affects about 1 to 2 percent of the population and frequently does not respond to traditional pain treatment. The researchers found that inhaling THC reduced the "intensity of pain, improved sleep and was well tolerated." They recommend additional studies on safety and long-term efficacy.
Cannabis: Providing Options
The NIH estimates that about 116 million American adults suffer from chronic pain. It is the leading cause of disability in the United States and accounts for more than $635 billion a year in economic costs. This cost is greater than the annual costs of heart disease, cancer, and diabetes combined.
The prevalence and cost highlight the need for treatment alternatives. This has helped spur research into cannabis as a pain medication. Although further study is needed with regard to its effects on specific conditions and methods of delivery, medical marijuana is a viable treatment for the millions who suffer from chronic pain.