An Alternative to Opioids? New Study Shows Cannabis Can Significantly Reduce Pain

Someone holding a marijuana plant with a rubber glove.

Photo: Aphiwat Chuangchoem/Pexels

There is now reliable scientific evidence that the cannabis flower can reduce pain.

University of Nevada researchers  found that the average user experienced a three-point drop in pain on a 0-10 point scale immediately following cannabis consumption.

The study, published in the journal Complementary Therapies in Medicine, showed that the drug works as a “mid-level analgesic,” alleviating pain caused by different types of health conditions, with relatively minimal negative side effects.

The research was based on common and commercially available cannabis products.

The greatest analgesic responses, however, were reported by people who used whole dried cannabis flower, or ‘buds,’ and particularly cannabis with relatively high levels of THC  (tetrahydrocannabinol) which is what gives users the sensation of being “high.”

However, cannabidiol or CBD, which does not have that effect, showed little association with the momentary changes in pain intensity, based on the massive database explored in the study.

“Cannabis likely has numerous constituents that possess analgesic properties beyond THC, including terpenes and flavonoids, which likely act synergistically for people that use whole dried cannabis flower,” said Jacob Miguel Vigil, one of the lead investigators of the study, titled “The Effectiveness of Self-Directed Medical Cannabis Treatment for Pain.”

“Our results confirm that cannabis use is a relatively safe and effective medication for alleviating pain, and that is the most important message to learn from our results. It can only benefit the public for people to be able to responsibly weigh the true risks and benefits of their pain medication choices, and when given this opportunity, I’ve seen numerous chronic pain patients substitute away from opioid use, among many other classes of medications, in favour of medical cannabis.”

“Perhaps the most surprising result is just how widespread relief was with symptom relief reported in about 95 percent of cannabis administration sessions and across a wide variety of different types of pain,” added lead author of the study, Xiaoxue Li.

The authors do caution that cannabis use does carry the risks of addiction and short-term impairments in cognitive and behavioural functioning, and may not be effective for everyone. However, there are multiple mechanisms by which cannabis alleviates pain suffering.

In addition to its anti-inflammatory properties, cannabis activates receptors that are in the same area of the brain as opioid receptors.

“Cannabis with high THC also causes mood elevation and adjusts attentional demands, likely distracting patients from the aversive sensations that people refer to as “pain” explains Vigil.


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