Living with cancer can be taxing on both the body and the mind, especially from symptoms like pain. Now, while opioids are often prescribed to manage this pain, they come with their own issues. This causes people to look at alternative methods, with one recent study recommending cannabis.
Pain and Cancer
About a third of cancer patients and two-thirds of terminally ill patients will experience moderate to severe pain. Even with the treatment of painkillers, studies have found that this has little effect on one in four people with cancer-related pain.
Additionally, painkillers like opioids can cause unwanted side effects like nausea, constipation, dependency, and slowed breathing. This has led cancer patients to seek out alternative forms of treatment that can relieve pain symptoms.
Researchers from McGill University and Harvard Medical School, among others, set out to see if medicinal cannabis may work as an alternative treatment for reducing pain.
Medicinal marijuana for cancer pain?
For the study, researchers analyzed the treatment responses of 358 adults with cancer over a period of 3.5 years, courtesy of the Quebec Cannabis Registry in Canada.
The three most common cancer diagnoses were breast, bowel, and genitourinary (cancers that affect the reproductive and urinary systems). Over 72% of the adults reportedly had pain symptoms, with a smaller number reporting other symptoms like nausea, anxiety, and insomnia.
In regards to cannabis use, over half of the patients took the product by mouth. 25% used THC-dominant products, 38% used THC: CBD-balanced products and 17% used CBD-dominant products. THC and CBD are compounds found in cannabis, with THC being responsible for the “high” associated with the cannabis plant.
In addition to their symptoms, and drug intake, the patient’s pain intensity was monitored quarterly for one year, with their pain intensity being rated on a sliding scale from 0 to 10 and pain relief from 0% to 100%.
Medicinal cannabis can relieve cancer pain
“Our data suggest a role for [medicinal cannabis] as a safe and complementary treatment option in patients with cancer [who fail] to reach adequate pain relief through conventional analgesics, such as opioids.”
According to the findings of the study, published in BMJ Supportive & Palliative Care, medicinal cannabis was found to not only ease cancer pain but also reduce the need for opioids and other painkillers. In fact, the total number of painkillers taken decreased at each quarterly check-up.
Which was the most effective? Products with a balance of both THC and CBD.
Additionally, the use of medicinal marijuana seemed to be safe. Only eleven patients reported moderate to severe side effects, such as dizziness, fatigue, and sleepiness. Five patients chose to stop using the medicinal cannabis due to the side effects.
“The particularly good safety profile of [medicinal cannabis] found in this study can be partly attributed to the close supervision by healthcare professionals who authorized, directed, and monitored [the] treatment,” the researchers wrote.
Can medicinal cannabis replace opioids?
Granted, this was an observational study, so it cannot show a direct relationship between cannabis use and higher pain relief or lower medication use. That said, the findings do add to a body of research highlighting cannabis’ pain-relieving potential.
A study published in Exploration in Medicine found that in cancer patients, cannabis products caused lower levels of pain and improved sleep and cognitive thinking.
With over 100,00 people having died of a drug overdose in the 12-month period ending March 2022, it’s imperative to find an alternative and safer form of pain relief, and it appears that cannabis may be that.
A study published earlier this year found that among sufferers of chronic pain, cannabis reduced their use of prescription opioids, prescription non-opioid, and over-the-counter pain medications. Also, less than 1% reported that the use of cannabis increased their use of these medications.
Larger studies are still needed to confirm whether medicinal cannabis can replace opioids and other types of painkillers. While we await these studies, if you are struggling with pain, ask your healthcare practitioner about cannabis-based products that may help ease symptoms.
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Aprikian S, Kasvis P, Vigano M, et alMedical cannabis is effective for cancer-related pain: Quebec Cannabis Registry resultsBMJ Supportive & Palliative Care Published Online First: 02 May 2023. doi: 10.1136/spcare-2022-004003
Bicket, M. C., Stone, E. M., & McGinty, E. E. (2023). Use of Cannabis and Other Pain Treatments Among Adults With Chronic Pain in US States With Medical Cannabis Programs. JAMA network open, 6(1), e2249797. https://doi.org/10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2022.49797
Roberto, A, Greco, MT, Uggeri, S, Cavuto, S, Deandrea, S, Corli, O, et al. (2022). Living systematic review to assess the analgesic undertreatment in cancer patients. Pain Pract 22: 487– 496. https://doi.org/10.1111/papr.13098