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MMJ Is Shown to Reduce Pain and Opioid Use in Cancer Patients

June 17, 2022 03:00 pm ET Estimated Read Time: 4 Minutes
MMJ Is Shown to Reduce Pain and Opioid Use in Cancer Patients

Cannabis is being increasingly chosen as an alternative to pharmaceutical medication, specifically those like opioids that are intended to reduce pain. Cannabis has been shown to effectively block pain, and recent research confirms that it reduces the need for opiate pain killers among cancer patients. These patients arguably have the most to gain from cannabis, as it can significantly improve a host of their symptoms and could even contribute to killing cancer cells

Testing MMJ vs. Opioids 

The study, published in Frontiers in Pain Research, was reportedly a comprehensive assessment of the benefits of medical cannabis. When oncology (cancer) patients were administered medical cannabis, researchers found that “pain measures improved significantly, other cancer-related symptoms also decrease, the consumption of painkillers was reduced and the side effects were minimal.” Specifically, almost half of the participants completely stopped using analgesic medication following six months of medical cannabis treatment.

The study included 324 participants at the beginning, though this number dwindled a bit by the end due to some patients passing away or not participating in the follow-up. Regarding the variations of cancer involved, the researchers note that the eligible patients were more likely to have breast or colon cancer when compared to non-eligible patients. 

The researchers recruited certified oncologists who were able to give their patients access to medical cannabis. From there, the assisting oncologists referred their interested patients to the study and then reported on the characteristics associated with their cancer diagnosis. According to the report, “Patients completed anonymous questionnaires before starting treatment, and again at several time points during the following six months. We gathered data on a number of factors including pain measures, analgesics consumption, cancer symptom burden, sexual problems and side effects.” 

In terms of other findings, sexual function improved for most of the male participants but worsened for most of the females. Meiri explains, “Although our study was very comprehensive and presented additional perspectives on medical cannabis, the sex, age and enthnicity, as well as cancer types and the stage of the cancer meant the variety of patients in our study was wide-ranging. Therefore, future studies should investigate the level of effectiveness of medical cannabis in specific subgroups of cancer patients with more shared characteristics,” such as the differences between genders.

Moving Toward MMJ in Cancer Treatment

Cancer-associated symptoms include pain, anxiety, depression, insomnia, decreased quality of life, and increased disability, which can lead to worsened prognosis (a likely forecast of the medical condition). As a result of having no cure, cancer patients are commonly prescribed pharmaceuticals like opiate painkillers to help manage their symptoms. The study’s researchers suggest that cannabis can (and should) be considered as an alternative to these highly addictive opiates.

David Meiri, one of the study’s authors and an assistant professor from the Technion Israel Institute of Technology, explains, “Traditionally, cancer-related pain is mainly treated by opioid analgesics, but most oncologists perceive opioid treatment as hazardous, so alternative therapies are required.” He added that their study “is the first to assess the possible benefits of medical cannabis for cancer-related pain in oncology patients; gathering information from the start of treatment, and with repeated follow-ups for an extended period of time, to get a thorough analysis of its effectiveness.”

Another researcher which is part of the team, Gil Bar-Sela, stated, “We encountered numerous cancer patients who ask us whether medical cannabis treatment can benefit their health….Our initial review of existing research revealed that actually not much was known regarding its effectiveness, particularly for the treatment of cancer-related pain, and of what was known, most findings were inconclusive.” 

Despite the fact that cannabis did not help the participants stimulate their appetite enough to gain weight, the researchers did find that cannabis assisted in alleviating other symptoms as well as reduced the need for opioid medication. The researchers state that the patients who completely stopped consuming opioids did so because cannabis could act as a substitution analgesic: “Other studies have made similar conclusions, but many of them were not able to make use of human cancer patients or relied largely on self-reporting.  

The researchers concluded by stating that “this prospective, comprehensive and large-scale cohort demonstrated an overall mild to modest long-term statistical improvement of all investigated measures including pain, associated symptoms, and importantly, reduction in opioid (and other analgesics) use. It seems that MC [medical cannabis] treatment is safe for oncology patients, but its efficacy and clinical relevance may be limited. Oncologists should carefully consider the possible benefits of MC treatment to their patients before prescribing it.” 

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