From the Journals

Chronic pain patients swapping opioids for medical cannabis



Almost one-third of patients with chronic pain report using medical cannabis to manage that pain, with more than half of them decreasing use of other pain medications, including opioids, new research shows.

“That patients report substituting cannabis for pain medicines so much really underscores the need for research on the benefits and risks of using cannabis for chronic pain,” lead author Mark C. Bicket, MD, PhD, assistant professor, department of anesthesiology, and director, Opioid Prescribing Engagement Network, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, said in an interview.

However, he added, the question is whether they’re turning to cannabis and away from other pain treatments. “What’s not clear and one of the gaps that we wanted to address in the study was if medical cannabis use is changing the use of other treatments for chronic pain,” said Dr. Bicket.

The study was published online in JAMA Network Open.

Decreased opioid use

The survey included a representative sample of 1724 American adults aged 18 years or older with chronic noncancer pain living in areas with a medical cannabis program.

Respondents were asked about their use of three categories of pain treatments. This included medical cannabis; pharmacologic treatments including prescription opioids, nonopioid analgesics, and over-the-counter analgesics; and common nonpharmacologic treatments such as physical therapy, meditation, and cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT).

Just over 96% of respondents completed the full survey. About 57% of the sample was female and the mean age of the study sample was 52.3 years.

Among study participants, 31% (95% CI, 28.2% - 34.1%) reported having ever used cannabis to manage pain; 25.9% (95% confidence interval, 23.2%-28.8%) reported use in the past 12 months, and 23.2% (95% CI, 20.6%-26%) reported use in the past 30 days.

“This translates into a large number of individuals who are using cannabis in an intended medical way” to treat chronic condition such as low back pain, migraine, and fibromyalgia, said Dr. Bicket.

More than half of survey respondents reported their medical cannabis use led to a decrease in prescription opioid use, prescription nonopioid use and use of over-the-counter medications.

Dr. Bicket noted “almost no one” said medical cannabis use led to higher use of these drugs.

As for nonpharmacologic treatments, 38.7% reported their use of cannabis led to decreased use of physical therapy, 19.1% to lower use of meditation, and 26% to less CBT. At the same time, 5.9%, 23.7% and 17.1%, respectively, reported it led to increased use of physical therapy, meditation, and CBT.

Medical cannabis is regulated at a state level. On a federal level, it’s considered a Schedule I substance, which means it’s deemed not to have a therapeutic use, although some groups are trying to change that categorization, said Dr. Bicket.

As a result, cannabis products “are quite variable” in terms of how they’re used (smoked, eaten etc.) and in their composition, including percentage of cannabidiol and tetrahydrocannabinol.

“We really don’t have a good sense of the relative risks and benefits that could come from cannabis as a treatment for chronic pain,” said Dr. Bicket. “As a physician, it’s difficult to have discussions with patients because I’m not able to understand the products they’re using based on this regulatory environment we have.”

He added clinicians “are operating in an area of uncertainty right now.”

What’s needed is research to determine how safe and effective medical cannabis is for chronic pain, he said.


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