Medical Marijuana Reduces Opioid Use for Chronic Pain

Medical cannabis significantly lowers the use of opioids in patients with chronic pain, according to a new study from the University of Michigan (U-M).

Medical cannabis significantly lowers the use of opioids in patients with chronic pain, according to a new study from the University of Michigan (U-M).

The debate over the benefits, or lack thereof, of medical marijuana is one hot topic that is not going away. Recent findings indicated that a cannabis drug helps a rare form of epilepsy, but outcomes are still inconclusive on its impact on rheumatic diseases like fibromyalgia. Researchers from the U-M School of Public Health and Medical School found that medical marijuana can help patients cut back on their prescription drugs usage.

“We’re in the midst of an opioid epidemic and we need to figure out what to do about it,” lead author Kevin Boehnke, BS, PhD student, said in a news release.

The team studied the medication habits of 185 patients with chronic pain. Notably, before the start of the study, these patients indicated that they were believers in the benefits of medical marijuana. Surveys were administered from November 2013 to February 2015 and it became apparent that cannabis had a strong influence on opioid use.

  • Related: Hold Off on Opioids for Chronic Pain Treatment, CDC Says

A total of 118 patients reported an average 64% decrease in prescription opioids while using medical marijuana. There was also a 45% increase in the quality of life during this time, according to the report in The Journal of Pain. In addition, they indicated less side effects from the cannabis when compared to other medications.

Interestingly, it wasn’t the patients with more severe chronic pain who had not previously benefited from opioids who saw the greatest improvement. It turns out that the patients with less severe pain reported a reduction in opioid use and better quality of life.

“We hypothesized that cannabis might be particularly effective for the type of pain seen in conditions such as fibromyalgia, since there are many studies suggesting that synthetic cannabinoids work in these conditions. We did not see this because the patients in this study rated cannabis to be equally effective for those with different pain severity,” explained senior study author Daniel Clauw, MD, professor of pain management anesthesiology at the U-M Medical School.

Based on the outcomes, it’s fair to say that patients were using the medical marijuana to replace opioids. Since they reported less side effects with cannabis, this research warrants further investigation as a treatment for chronic pain.

“We would caution against rushing to change current clinical practice towards cannabis,” Boehnke warned, “but note that this study suggests that cannabis is an effective pain medication and agent to prevent opioid overuse.”

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