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Cannabis for peripheral neuropathy: The good, the bad, and the unknown

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STUDIES OF CANNABIS FOR NEUROPATHIC PAIN

A number of studies have evaluated cannabis for treating neuropathic pain. Overall, available data support the efficacy of smoked or inhaled cannabis in its flower form when used as monotherapy or adjunctive therapy for relief of neuropathic pain of various etiologies. Many studies also report secondary benefits, including better sleep and functional improvement.23,24

However, adverse effects are common, especially at high doses, and include difficulty concentrating, lightheadedness, fatigue, and tachycardia. More serious reported adverse effects include anxiety, paranoia, and psychosis.

Wilsey et al, 2008: Neuropathic pain reduced

Wilsey et al25 conducted a double-blind, placebo-controlled crossover study that assessed the effects of smoking cannabis in 38 patients with central or peripheral neuropathic pain. Participants were assigned to smoke either high- or low-dose cannabis (7% or 3.5% delta-9-THC) or placebo cigarettes. Cigarettes were smoked during treatment sessions using the following regimen: 2 puffs at 60 minutes from baseline, 3 puffs at 120 minutes, and 4 puffs at 180 minutes. Patients were assessed after each set of puffs and for 2 hours afterwards. The primary outcome was spontaneous relief of pain as measured by a visual analog scale.

Pain intensity was comparable and significantly reduced in both treatment groups compared with placebo. At the high dose, some participants experienced neurocognitive impairment in attention, learning, memory, and psychomotor speed; only learning and memory declined at the low dose.

Ellis et al, 2009: Pain reduction in HIV neuropathy

Ellis et al23 conducted a double-blind, placebo-controlled crossover trial in patients with HIV neuropathy that was unresponsive to at least 2 analgesics with different modes of action. During each treatment week, participants were randomly assigned to smoke either active cannabis or placebo, while continuing their standard therapy. Titration started at 4% THC and was adjusted based on tolerability and efficacy. Twenty-eight of the 34 enrolled patients completed both cannabis and placebo treatments. The principal outcome was change in pain intensity from baseline at the end of each week, using the Descriptor Differential Scale of Pain Intensity.

Of the 28 patients, 46% achieved an average pain reduction of 3.3 points (30%). One patient experienced cannabis-induced psychosis, and another developed an intractable cough, which resolved with smoking cessation.

Ware et al, 2010: Reduced posttraumatic or postsurgical neuropathic pain

Ware et al24 performed a randomized crossover trial in 21 patients with posttraumatic or postsurgical neuropathic pain. Participants inhaled 4 different formulations of cannabis (containing 0%, 2.5%, 6.0%, and 9.4% THC) during 4 14-day periods. They inhaled a 25-mg dose through a pipe 3 times a day for the first 5 days of each cycle, followed by a 9-day washout period. Daily average pain intensity was measured using a numeric rating scale. The investigators also assessed mood, sleep, quality of life, and adverse effects.

Patients in the 9.4% THC group reported significantly less pain and better sleep, with average pain scores decreasing from 6.1 to 5.4 on an 11-point scale. Although the benefit was modest, the authors noted that the pain had been refractory to standard treatments.

The number of reported adverse events increased with greater potency and were most commonly throat irritation, burning sensation, headache, dizziness, and fatigue. This study suggests that THC potency affects tolerability, with higher doses eliciting clinically important adverse effects, some of which may reduce the ability to perform activities of daily living, such as driving.

Wilsey et al, 2013: Use in resistant neuropathic pain

Wilsey et al26 conducted another double-blind, placebo-controlled crossover study assessing the effect of vaporized cannabis on central and peripheral neuropathic pain resistant to first-line pharmacotherapies. Dose-effect relationships were explored using medium-dose (3.5%), low-dose (1.3%), and placebo cannabis. The primary outcome measure was a 30% reduction in pain intensity based on a visual analog scale.

In the placebo group, 26% of patients achieved this vs 57% of the low-dose cannabis group and 61% of those receiving the medium dose. No significant difference was found between the 2 active doses in reducing neuropathic pain, and both were more effective than placebo. The number needed to treat to achieve a 30% reduction in pain was about 3 for both cannabis groups compared with placebo. Psychoactive effects were minimal, of short duration, and reversible.

Wallace et al, 2015: Use in diabetic peripheral neuropathy

Wallace et al27 conducted a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled crossover study evaluating cannabis for diabetic peripheral neuropathy in 16 patients. Each had experienced at least 6 months of neuropathic pain in their feet. The participants inhaled a single dose of 1%, 4%, or 7% THC cannabis or placebo. Spontaneous pain was reported with a visual analog scale and also tested with a foam brush and von Frey filament at intervals until 4 hours after treatment.

Pain scores were lower with treatment compared with placebo, with high-dose cannabis having the greatest analgesic effect. Pain reduction lasted for the full duration of the test. Cannabis recipients had declines in attention and working memory, with the high-dose group experiencing the greatest impact 15 minutes after treatment. High-dose recipients also had poorer scores on testing of quick task-switching, with the greatest effect at 2 hours.27

Research and market cannabis are not equal

Results of US studies must be qualified. Most have used cannabis provided by the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA),23–26 which differs in potency from commercially available preparations. This limits the clinical usefulness of the analysis of benefits and risks.

Vergara et al28 found that NIDA varieties contained much lower THC levels and as much as 23 times the cannabinol content as cannabis in state-legalized markets.

Studies based on NIDA varieties likely underestimate the risks of consumer-purchased cannabis, as THC is believed to be most responsible for the risk of psychosis and impaired driving and cognition.24,28

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