Medical marijuana reduces pain, opioid use in cancer patients

Medical marijuana reduces pain, opioid use among cancer patients

Cancer patients who used medicinal marijuana experienced a median 20% reduction in pain symptoms, a new study found. Photo by Circe Denyer/publicdomainpictures

Cancer patients who use medical marijuana experience less pain and a better quality of life, Israeli researchers report.

And, their new study found, these patients were less likely to rely on opioid pain medications, with minimal side effects.

“I hope people pay attention to the results of this study and use cannabis when they need it for patients who need it,” said Dr. Alex Bekker, professor and chair of the division of anesthesiology at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School in Newark.

Many doctors are still reluctant to prescribe marijuana for chronic pain, he said.

“Doctors have a hard time using cannabis simply because of historical perspective, and it is still not federally authorized,” said Bekker, who reviewed the study results.

A majority of US states and the District of Columbia have legalized medical marijuana.

But because it’s still considered illegal by the federal government, it hasn’t been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and therefore isn’t covered by government or private health insurance, Bekker explained.

“Articles like this are important in convincing lawmakers that there is something good for a patient and that we are not using it for some strange reason, the kind of propaganda that has been around for many years,” he said.

Pain, depression, anxiety and insomnia all affect patients undergoing cancer treatment and can lead to a poor prognosis, doctors say.

“Traditionally, cancer-related pain has primarily been treated with opioid analgesics, but most oncologists consider opioid treatment to be dangerous, so alternative therapies are required,” study researcher David Meiri said in a written statement. Meiri is an assistant professor at the Technion Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa.

For the study, his team followed 324 cancer patients who used medicinal marijuana for six months. The patients experienced a median 20% reduction in pain symptoms, the researchers found. Median means that half had more pain relief, half had less.

Study participants also reported other benefits.

Anxiety levels decreased by an average of 22% and depression severity by 12%. At the same time, quality of life scores increased by an average of 14%. Overall, about 60% of the participants reported improvement in symptoms associated with medical marijuana, the researchers found.

After using medical marijuana for six months, nearly half of them stopped all other painkillers, according to the researchers.

“Medicinal cannabis has been suggested as a possible remedy for appetite loss, but most patients in this study still lost weight,” Meiri said. “Since a significant proportion were diagnosed with progressive cancer, weight loss is expected with disease progression.”

He also noted that sexual function improved for most men, but deteriorated for most women.

Bekker said most studies show that medical marijuana improves patients’ quality of life. Because the results of this study lasted more than six months, it’s hard to believe they represent just a “placebo effect,” he added.

“To the best of our knowledge, most studies show an improvement in quality of life,” Bekker said, pointing out that marijuana may not actually prevent the pain of chronic disease, but it does make living with the pain easier.

“Suppose you have chronic pain and you watch an interesting movie on TV, for two hours you don’t think about it, but when the movie is over, you start to feel pain again,” he said. “Cannabis has the same effect. The pain may still be there and the pain relief is not dramatic, but patients can cope with the pain better. Quality of life is definitely improving with cannabis.”

For some patients, marijuana may not be the best choice for pain relief, he said. This is especially true for people with a history of psychiatric disorders.

The study was recently published in the journal Frontiers in Pain Research.

More information

For more information on medical marijuana, visit the US National Institute on Drug Abuse.

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