Can marijuana be the answer for pain?

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With approximately 50 million Americans suffering from chronic or severe pain, doctors and patients are seeking treatments such as marijuana to be prescribed as a substitute for potent prescription painkillers and nonprescription drugs that some have difficulty tolerating.

According to Donald Abrams, MD, a professor of clinical medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, who assisted in reviewing research on marijuana for a 2017 report from the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, there is a lack of evidence about the health effects of marijuana.

The evidence that marijuana relieves pain is strongest in the areas of nerve pain (neuropathy) and cancer-related pain, Abrams said. Certain oral cannabinoids have also been shown to reduce muscle spasms in patients with multiple sclerosis.

Angela Bryan, PhD, professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of Colorado, Boulder, said, “The evidence we have thus far suggests that cannabis is moderately effective for pain relief.” However, Bryan noted, most studies have not compared marijuana with other methods of pain relief.

Cannabinoids are one of more than 60 chemicals in the cannabis plant, WebMD reported. Since the body contains cannabinoid receptors — cites where chemicals attach to cells — Abrams said it makes sense that marijuana might help with pain relief.

Some research suggests that marijuana could replace opioids for pain management. According to two recent studies, states with medical marijuana laws or legalized recreational use might have experienced a decline in prescriptions of opioid.

Another study polled nearly 3,000 medical marijuana patients, including approximately a third who said they had used opioid pain medicines in the past 6 months. Most respondents said the marijuana provided relief equal to other medications, minus the side effects. Ninety-seven percent said they were able to lower the amount of opioids they took if they also utilized marijuana, and 81 percent said that using marijuana alone was more effective than using both marijuana and opioids.

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