Pain is a universal reality that we all have to deal with in some form or another. While pain may strike on occasion for some—such as the random headache or pulled muscle, for many of us, pain is a daily chronic situation. In fact, according to the National Institute of Health, pain affects more Americans than diabetes, heart disease and cancer combined. Pain is a leading cause of disability, and the most common reason Americans go to the doctor.
Unfortunately, many with chronic pain turn to dangerous prescription painkillers like opiates. While pain is a huge problem that can leave a patient unable to lead a normal life, the painkillers themselves might be even worse. Opiates alone kill over 33,000 each year, and the rates are only increasing.
You may think over-the-counter painkillers like non-steroidal inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are a safer choice, but estimates for deaths from NSAIDs hover over 15,000 a year, and hospitalization for complications caused by NSAIDS (like GI bleeding or liver damage) are in the 100,000 range.
In this article, part of our series geared towards folks new to cannabis, we get into how cannabis may be a safer and better option for chronic pain patients. Many report significant pain relief from cannabis, and in states that allow medical cannabis, deaths from opiate overdoses have gone down by 25%.
Ella is one patient whose relied heavily on cannabis’s pain-relieving abilities to get her through the day. Ella has a genetic condition called thalassemia. This inherited blood disorder is characterized by a deficiency in red blood cells and hemoglobin. In severe cases like Ella’s, regular blood transfusions are required as treatment.
Ella has been having blood transfusions every few weeks since she was one month old. In addition, this challenging condition has caused Ella problems like liver enlargement, bone inflammation and congestive heart failure. These issues along with the many surgeries and painful procedures Ella has gone through have left her in need of some serious pain management.
“The cannabis just helps me so much with the pain and the surgeries,” says Ella, adding that her mother had first suggested cannabis five years ago as an alternative to the Percocet and Vicodin that she was taking. These prescription painkillers were not only addictive, but they were compounding her liver problems, causing her liver to double in size.
Thankfully, cannabis provided Ella a safer alternative. “Because I was taking cannabis for my pain, my liver was able to shrink down to normal size.” she explains, saying that anyone with her condition should try out cannabis. “I recommend it, because it's not a narcotic that can damage your organs, and it's just a wonderful medicine.”
Becky is another patient who uses cannabis for pain relief. The 42-year-old uses cannabis for a connective tissue disorder that affects her eyes, heart, muscular system and skeletal system. This condition leaves Becky with a lot of daily chronic pain. That pain can really get in the way of her work as a hairstylist. While some doctors suggested she get into a new line of work, Becky is passionate about what she does and wanted to continue.
“I had to figure out ways to make myself feel better and still be able to function.” she says, sharing a long line of medications she experimented with before making her way to medical cannabis.
Becky tried everything from Tylenol and OxyContin to muscle relaxers, but nothing seemed to help. Then she thought back to times she had used cannabis recreationally. “I realized that any time I smoked cannabis, it was because I was struggling with physical pain or with something emotional. It always helped.”
With approval from her doctor, Becky began to use cannabis medicinally, and it has transformed her life. “I truly, deeply feel like if I didn't have cannabis in my life, I wouldn't be the same person I am now.” she says. “I might not even be here.”
Still, Becky says she had to do some work to find the right kinds of cannabis for her. “Not everything affects me the same way it affects everybody else,” she explains. “There are some indicas that make me really 'go go go.' There are some that caused me massive anxiety. There are some sativas that make me sleepy. I had to figure that all out.”
Having finally worked out what her best cannabis options are, Becky’s now well enough to continue her work in the hair salon. She has become a vocal advocate of cannabis, telling all of her clients about the wonders it has worked in her life.
Becky and Ella aren’t the only ones using cannabis for pain. In one study, 97% of medical marijuana patients said they use the plant primarily for chronic pain.
The science supports these patient’s claims that cannabis is a potent painkiller. In fact, in a study by UC Berkeley and HelloMD, 81% of patients reported that cannabis alone was more effective at relieving their pain than opioids were, with similar results reported for patients using non-opioid painkillers.
Cannabis helps treat pain by sending cannabinoids like tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) to stimulate the body’s endocannabinoid system. This system is the body’s natural pain reliever. When stimulated, pain relief is quick and potent, but without the numbing and desensitized feelings that can come with traditional painkillers.
If you suffer from chronic pain and think cannabis might be right for you, the best first step is to talk to a doctor. You can consult with one of HelloMD’s knowledgeable doctors; it's easy, private and 100% online. Whether you have a medical marijuana card or live in a state where you can purchase through recreational means, you’ll want to start exploring which strains and methods of using cannabis are best for you.
Stay tuned for our next installment of the Cannabis for Newbies guide, where we’ll delve into how cannabis can help manage stress.
Photo credit: Nick Karvounis