Everything You Need to Know about Marijuana’s Role in Chronic Pain

December 2, 2018 • By Sophia Smith

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Cannabis has gained widespread acceptance in recent years with 61 percent of Americans, including 74  percent of millennials, reportedly being in favor of legalizing the drug, according to a 2017 survey by Pews Research. Aggressive legalization efforts have certainly contributed to this dramatic shift in attitude.

Michigan was the latest to legalize recreational cannabis while Utah and Missouri both voted to legalize medical marijuana. Currently, there are 10 states (plus Washington, DC) that have legalized weed for recreational purposes while 33 states allow its medical use.

The US is not the only country to make significant strides in marijuana legislation. In October 2018, Canada was the first G7 country to make the bold move of legalizing marijuana on the federal level. As cannabis becomes increasingly popular in the medical community, it is important to take a close look at its therapeutic effects, particularly when it comes to managing pain.

To understand how marijuana works as a treatment for pain, it helps to know some key things about its history, medical effects, and interactions with the body.

Marijuana’s Medical Uses throughout History

Even before cannabis became legal, its healing benefits have already been recorded throughout history. The earliest documented use of cannabis can be traced all the way back to 2727 BC in ancient China during the reign of Emperor Shen Nung. The emperor was the first influential figure who officially prescribed cannabis tea as a treatment for a host of illnesses, including gout, malaria, and rheumatism.

In Japan, the plant has been cultivated since the pre-Neolithic period for a variety of uses, including fiber, food, and as a psychoactive material. The ancient Indian Vedas referred to the plant as bhang and used it as a cure for fever, dysentery, digestive ailments, and sunstroke. It was also a key element in important rituals by pharmacological cults located around the world.

Today, cannabis is used for a variety of medical applications, from anxiety to debilitating seizures. Its therapeutic effects are triggered when the hundreds of active marijuana compounds known as cannabinoids interact with the body’s endocannabinoid system (ECS).

The ECS acts as an important biochemical signal system that maintains balance in critical physiological functions related to immune responses, blood pressure, energy, appetite, and more. It also influences many bodily sensations, such as stress, hunger, and pain.

Marijuana’s Relationship with the Endocannabinoid System

For the ECS to maintain balance in the body’s physiological functions, it needs cannabinoid receptors that are found on cell surfaces. When conditions outside the cell change, these cannabinoid receptors send signals to activate the necessary cell response and, therefore, restore balance.

Two of the most important cannabinoid receptors are known as CB1 and CB2. The former has been seen to interact with tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, one of the hundreds of active compounds known as cannabinoids found in weed. THC works the same way as the body’s endocannabinoids do because it activates cannabinoid receptors.

When a person consumes cannabinoids through weed, the ECS receives signals to produce more endocannabinoids. Activating the ECS produces various medical benefits, including cell repair, inflammation regulation, and pain relief.

Managing Pain with Marijuana

An estimated 20.4 percent of US adults, or about 50 million, suffered from chronic pain in 2016 while 8 percent suffered from high-impact chronic pain, according to a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Because of its many therapeutic benefits, marijuana has emerged as a viable option for managing different kinds of pain. A 2002 study published in the National Center for Biotechnology Information website found that small doses of smoked cannabis can improve pain, mood and sleep in patients experiencing chronic pain.

People suffering from pain associated with debilitating conditions like multiple sclerosis (MS) may also consider cannabis as a treatment. Some studies have shown that cannabis can help patients manage MS symptoms like stiffness, nerve pain, discomfort caused by an overactive bladder, and sleeplessness.

Cannabis has also been seen as useful in treating pain-related symptoms resulting from cancer chemotherapy, such as nausea and vomiting. Some studies have also shown that inhalation of marijuana can treat neuropathic pain and patients who used cannabis extracts in clinical trials had a lesser need for pain medication.

Potential Side Effects and Risks

It is important to note that researchers have not yet fully understood marijuana’s effects on the body. Furthermore, there are potential side effects when using it for treating pain. Perhaps one of the most well-known effects of marijuana is its famous high. In addition to this feeling of euphoria, users report decreased motor control, disorientation, and even heightened negative feelings such as anxiety and paranoia.

One of the most common ways of consuming marijuana is by smoking, and this method can potentially spread hazardous substances similar to those found in cigarettes not just to smokers but also secondhand smokers.

Some studies and anecdotal evidence have also shown that cannabis negatively affects cognitive functions such as memory, attention, and verbal skills. In fact, according to a recent study published in The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, teenagers who stopped using cannabis even for just one week experienced a notable improvement in their verbal learning and memory.

Last but not least, while many weed enthusiasts insist that cannabis does not cause addiction, unlike hard drugs and even alcohol, a study by the National Institute on Drug Abuse suggests otherwise.

According to the study, 9 percent of marijuana users become addicted to the drug. For the population that consumes weed during their teenage years, the number almost doubles with 17 percent becoming dependent on the drug. Finally, for those who consume the drug daily, about 25 percent to 50 percent become addicted.


Keep in mind that the cannabis industry is still in a very volatile state with legislation varying across countries. Furthermore, some companies still choose to maintain a zero-drug-tolerance policy in the workplace and may require employees and job applicants to pass a drug test for marijuana.

Make sure you keep yourself up-to-date on the latest news about cannabis legislation in your area as well as the drug policies in the place you work in before considering cannabis as an option for managing pain.

Sophia Smith

She is a renowned nutritionist and freelance writer whose topics of interest include healthy living and healthy eating. She is passionate about introducing new and delicious healthy meals while balancing her time between cooking and going to the gym. Her mission is to change the life of as many people as she can and make them the best version of themselves.
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