Cannabis can help with chronic pain, but patients risk withdrawal symptoms

A pair of recent studies shed new light on cannabis’s effects on patients managing chronic pain


Two recent studies out of the United States shed new light on cannabis’s effect on patients with chronic pain.


Two recent studies shed new light on cannabis’s effect on patients with chronic pain.

The first, published in the journal Cureus, involved 550 chronic pain patients. These patients were receiving treatment at three licensed medical cannabis clinics in the northeastern U.S. According to a Pain News Network article, the study is “one of the first to look at patients who were prescribed opioids for at least three months and continued to use opioids after starting cannabis therapy”.

Researchers found that nearly half (48 percent) of the patients reported significant improvement in their pain levels. Most (87 percent) said they had improved quality of life and better physical function (80 percent) while using medical cannabis. Most were able to reduce (45 percent) or stop (40 percent) their use of opioid pain medication.

“Our results show a remarkable percentage of patients both reporting complete cessation of opioids and decreasing opioid usage by the addition of medical cannabis, with results lasting for over a year for the majority,” wrote lead author Kevin Takakuwa, MD, an emergency medicine physician affiliated with the Society of Cannabis Clinicians.

“We hypothesize these effects may be due to the reported synergistic decrease in pain that has been shown with adding cannabis to opioids. Likely, as a result, the majority expressed not wanting opioids in the future, particularly those in the younger age group.”

Withdrawal symptoms

It’s not all good news, however. A separate study has found a significant downside to the use of medical cannabis for treating pain. Specifically, withdrawal symptoms.

A team from the University of Michigan Medical School and the VA Ann Arbor Healthcare System published the research in the journal Addiction. They reported on findings from detailed surveys of 527 Michigan residents spanning two years. All were participating in Michigan’s system to certify people with certain conditions for use of medical cannabis. All participants had non-cancer-related pain.

The team found that over half of participants experienced clusters of withdrawal symptoms between cannabis uses.

The researchers asked the patients whether they had experienced any of 15 different symptoms when they had gone a significant time without using cannabis. These symptoms ranged from from trouble sleeping and nausea to irritability and aggression.

Researchers grouped the patients into those who reported no or mild withdrawal symptoms, those reporting moderate symptoms, and those who reported severe symptoms.

They subsequently surveyed the patients one year and two years after the first survey.

A need to increase awareness

“At baseline,” according to a Medical Xpress post from the University of Michigan, “41% of the study participants fell into the mild symptoms group, 34% were in the moderate group and 25% were classed as severe….And about 10% of participants experienced worsening changes to their sleep, mood, mental state, energy, and appetite over the next two years as they continued to use cannabis.”

“Some people report experiencing significant benefits from medical cannabis, but our findings suggest a real need to increase awareness about the signs of withdrawal symptoms developing to decrease the potential downsides of cannabis use, especially among those who experience severe or worsening symptoms over time,” said Lara Coughlin, Ph.D., the addiction psychologist who led the analysis.

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