For chronic pain sufferers, options for pain management are few and far between. Most patients are given a difficult choice: They can choose to experience their pain and their reduced quality of life, or they can submit to opioid usage. Unfortunately, this means that rates of opioid addiction are high amongst chronic pain communities, and that addiction is at least as destructive as the pain itself.
Fortunately, there could be a viable solution, both for opioid addiction and pain management. Cannabis has long been touted as a useful tool in managing a variety of health conditions, but recent evidence could support it as an indispensable aid in kicking opioid abuse without accepting a life of pain and discomfort. Here’s what the science says.
THC and CBD as Pain Relievers
Opioid drugs help to alleviate pain by binding to certain receptors in the brain and spinal cord responsible for sending and receiving messages of pain. The opioid molecules block these messages, reducing the experience of pain and allowing users more freedom to experience life.
Cannabinoid compounds within cannabis function relatively similarly. THC, the cannabinoid responsible for marijuana’s psychoactive effects, binds to receptors in the brain and body. This molecule is structured almost identically to one the body produces naturally, called anandamide, which has the nickname of “the bliss molecule.” Anandamide helps to block the sensation of pain and provide comfort to the body, and THC provides a similar sensation. CBD, on the other hand, does not produce psychoactive effects, and it does not seem to bind to the same receptors in the brain and body. Instead, researchers believe that CBD encourages the body to release its own natural healing compounds, which can decrease inflammation and alleviate pain.
Admittedly, the pain relief provided by THC and CBD tend to be mild; it is unlikely that surgeons will ever use these compounds to numb the body during invasive procedures because they are unlikely to block more intense feelings of pain. Still, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine has concluded that medicinal marijuana can be enough to help some chronic pain sufferers develop healthy and normal lifestyle patterns — and keep them away from potentially harmful opioid drugs.
Mitigating Opioid Dependence
In addition to fully replacing opioid drug use in some chronic pain sufferers, cannabinoids might provide several routes away from opioid dependency for those already in the grip of substance abuse. Studies on pain relief through both cannabinoids and opioids indicates that the molecules synergize, boosting one another’s efficacy and reducing the quantity of substance required for successful pain relief. Thus, opioid users can slowly wean themselves off high doses of a potentially harmful drug and begin to find better balance in their pain treatment.
Fortunately, chronic pain patients seem to be discovering this fact for themselves. In places with medical or recreational marijuana access, pain sufferers are gravitating toward cannabis programs and taking advantage of cannabinoid products that help alleviate their pain. While many continue to use opioids for some pain treatment, the cannabinoids help to temper their opioid usage, keeping them much safer and healthier. As a result, research has found that when a U.S. state enacts a medical marijuana program, the opioid mortality rate within that state plummets by more than 24 percent almost immediately, and opioid mortality continues to drop the longer the state’s marijuana program remains active. States like Maryland which have long enjoyed legal medicinal cannabis laws have much lower opioid mortality than states like Mississippi, whose medicinal marijuana program is brand new.
Finally, those coming down from opioid abuse disorders often find that using cannabis provides helpful therapeutic effects that lessen the intensity of opioid withdrawals. THC, CBD and other cannabinoids help to reduce nausea, regulate body temperature, provide feelings of calm and otherwise make the process of transitioning away from opioid abuse much more bearable.
Chronic pain is not an easy diagnosis to live with, not least because there are so few safe, reliable options for pain management. Thankfully, as attitudes on cannabis have shifted, pain sufferers have gained a new recourse for both chronic pain treatment and opioid use mitigation, which means there are promising treatment avenues and improved outcomes for almost everyone within the chronic pain community.