Medical Cannabis for Chronic Pain: What You Need to Know

It is estimated that just under 28 million adults in the UK suffer from some degree of chronic pain. That’s between one-third to one-half of the entire population! And with an ageing population, this figure is likely to increase. Of these 28 million adults, approximately 8 million live with chronic pain that is moderate to severe in intensity, and for many, may even be disabling. The medical burden of chronic pain is anywhere around £10 billion, but research funding is severely lacking.

Chronic pain is defined as pain that lasts for longer than three to six months, or beyond the expected time of healing. This type of pain is different from acute pain, which is a normal response to an injury or illness, and usually goes away as the injury or illness is treated. Chronic pain can be caused by a variety of conditions, including arthritis, back pain, fibromyalgia, headaches and migraines, neuropathic pain or cancer pain.

There are several ways people can manage chronic pain, for example:

  • Medications: Over-the-counter pain relievers as well as prescription medications like opioids can be used to manage chronic pain.
  • Physical therapy: Physical therapy can help improve strenght, flexibility and range of motion, which can reduce pain and improve function.
  • Exercise: Regular exercise can help reduce paina nd improve overall health.
  • Acupuncture: This traditional Chinese medicine technique involves inserting thin needles into the skin at specific points to relieve pain.
  • Chiropractic care: This form of alternative medicine involves manual manipulation of the spine to alleviate pain and improve function.
  • Cognitive-behavioural therapy: This type of therapy can help individuals learn new ways of thinking and behaving that can reduce pain and improve overall well-being.
  • Mindfulness and meditation practices: Mindfulness and meditation practices can help individuals manage pain by learning to focus on the present moment and to reduce negative thoughts and emotions.

However, for many people suffering from chronic pain, none of the above interventions have been able to help. For these people, medical cannabis emerges as the next possible option .

What is medical cannabis?

Medical cannabis refers to the use of cannabis and its deratives, such as THC (tetrahyrocannabinol) and CBD (cannabidiol), as a medical treatment. These compounds have been found to have a variety of medicinal properties, including pain relief, anti-inflammatory effects and the ability to reduce nausea and vomiting. Medical cannabis is typically used to relieve the symptoms of conditions such as chronic pain, multiple sclerosis and the side effects of chemotherapy.

Medical cannabis works by interacting with the body’s endocannabinoid system (ECS). The ECS is a complex system that plays a role in regulating various physiological processes including pain, mood, appetite, and immune function. The ECS is made of receptors found throughout the body, including in the brain and immune system, which respond to compounds called cannabinoids.

Cannabis contains a variety of cannabinoids, the two most well-known are THC and CBD. THC is the compound that is most primarily used for pain relief and to reduce nausea and vomiting, while CBD is used for a variety of medical conditions such as reducing inflammation and anxiety.

When medical cannabis is consumed, the cannabinoids bind to receptors in the ECS, triggering a range of physiological effects. For example, when THC binds to receptors in the brain, it can relieve pain and reduce nausea and vomiting. When CBD binds to receptors in the immune system, it can reduce inflammation and improve the symptoms of certain medical condtions.

However, it is important to remember that the way medical cannabis works can vary depending on the individual and the specific condition being treated. The best way to determine the effectiveness of medical cannabis is to consult with a healthcare professional, who can recommend a proper treatment plan.

How does medical cannabis help with chronic pain?

Medical cannabis is believed to help with chronic pain in several ways, including:

1. Reducing inflammation:

Medical cannabis, particularly CBD, has anti-inflammatory properties that can help reduce pain and improve function in individuals with chronic pain conditions such as arthritis and fibromyalgia.

2. Acting as a pain reliever:

Medical cannabis, particularly THC, can act as a pain reliever by binding to receptors in the brain and spinal cord, altering the perception of pain.

3. Improving sleep:

Chronic pain can cause difficulty sleeping and medical cannabis has been found to improve sleep quality in individuals with chronic pain conditions.

4. Relaxing muscles:

Medical cannabis has been found to relax muscles and reduce muscle spasms, which can help relieve pain associated with conditions such as multiple sclerosis.

5. Helping with nerve pain:

Medical cannabis has been found to be effective in reducing neuropathic pain, which is caused by damage to the nervous system.

There is evidence to suggest that medical cannabis can be effective in reducing chronic pain. A systematic review of randomised controlled trials found that cannabis was associated with statistically significant reductions in chronic pain.

The use of medical cannabis for chronic pain in the UK is highly regulated. It is important to note that medical cannabis cannot be used as a first-line treatment, and anyone hoping to get a prescription must have tried at least two other treatments or therapies before being eligible. Get in touch with a medical cannabis specialist to find out your eligibility.

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