As cannabis legalization has spread across the country, more and more people are speaking out about the life-changing benefits of cannabis-based medicine. And, in the wake of the opioid crisis, doctors are looking for safer alternatives to treat their patients’ pain—and many of them are looking to cannabis as a potential solution.
But, how exactly does cannabis-based medicine work? Why is it such an effective pain treatment? And how is it being used as an alternative to opioids?
How can cannabis-based medicine work to treat pain?
First things first—before we jump into how cannabis-based medicine is changing the landscape of pain treatment and pain management, let’s first cover how cannabis works to treat pain.
Cannabis has been shown to have analgesic properties—and the most impactful way cannabis-based medicine works to treat pain is through compounds found in the plant called cannabinoids. “There are over 100+ cannabinoids, but the ones that are most popular are THC and CBD,” says Hervé Damas, MD, physician, former professional football player, and founder of Miami-based Grassroots Medicine and Wellness. “[Cannabinoids] work by exerting an effect on certain receptors in our body. These receptors are known as cannabinoid receptors.”
When THC and CBD interact with the cannabinoid receptors in the body, “they provide analgesia (pain relief), euphoria, and anti-inflammatory responses,” says Dr. Damas. “In addition, they [affect] mu opioid receptors (pain relief), nociceptors (pain), as well as are inhibitory to certain nerve signals (pain).”
Not only can cannabis help to alleviate pain, but studies show that THC may also make the experience of pain more bearable—which can help patients better deal with chronic pain.
So, in a nutshell, cannabis-based medicine is a like a one-two pain fighting punch; it can help decrease pain—and it can also make the experience of living with pain easier.
Why is cannabis-based medicine a better alternative to opioids?
There are plenty of reasons why cannabis-based medicine may be a better alternative to opioids for pain management. But, one reason that can’t be disputed—and is, arguably, the most important? Cannabis is significantly safer.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, in 2017 (the most recent available data) an estimated 1.7 million Americans suffered from substance abuse disorders related to prescription opioids. Cannabis-based medicine just doesn’t present that same kind of risk. “Cannabis-based medicine has a much lower potential for addiction. Although cannabis use disorder is not to be taken lightly… it does not present the same dangers of opioid use disorder,” says Dr. Damas.
And opioid addiction is not only dangerous—its deadly. According to the Center for Disease Control, opioids were involved in over 47,600 overdose deaths in 2017—accounting for more than two-thirds of all overdose deaths in the United States.
Opioid overdoses are killing people—but that’s just not a risk with cannabis-based medicine. In fact, there hasn’t been a single overdose death related to cannabis-based medicine. “There have not been any diagnosed deaths from marijuana overdose,” says Dr. Damas.
What are the different ways patients can use cannabis-based medicine to treat pain?
Another benefit of cannabis-based medicine is the wide variety of methods for using cannabis to treat pain. Patients have the opportunity to explore different products and consumption methods until they find the right mix for them—and find relief from their pain.
There are a number of ways to use cannabis for pain relief, including:
- Smoking cannabis flower
- Vaping cannabis flower
- Ingesting cannabis edibles
- Taking cannabis sublingually (typically through tinctures)
- Using cannabis topicals (like muscle rubs or lotions)
Different consumption methods have different effects. So, for example, inhalation (smoking or vaping) has an almost immediate effect, which makes it a good solution for acute pain. Edibles, on the other hand, are slower getting into the system—but their effects are much longer-lasting, making them a great option for chronic pain that interrupts sleep.
The point is, cannabis-based medicine offers a variety of solutions for patients seeking relief from pain—and patients can experiment with different consumption methods and products until they find the treatment that works best for them.
What are some precautions people should take when using cannabis-based medicine?
While there is no arguing that cannabis is a safer alternative to opioids, people using cannabis-based medicine should still take precautions when using them—especially if they’re just getting started.
The cannabinoid THC is what causes the “high” feeling typically associated with cannabis—and too much THC can cause adverse side effects, like increased anxiety. When using THC, people should take a “low and slow” approach, starting with a low dose and increasing slowly until they find the ideal dosage to treat their pain (without any problematic side effects).
And, while cannabis is fully legal in many states, keep in mind that it’s still illegal on a federal level.
Cannabis-based medicine has the potential to save lives
The opioid crisis is a national epidemic—and patients need safer alternatives to treat and manage their pain. Cannabis-based medicine has the potential to offer patients that alternative—and, in the process, has the potential to save lives.