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Survey Finds 40% of Chronic Pain Patients Swapped Opioids for Medical Cannabis

February 11, 2021 10:42 am ET
Survey Finds 40% of Chronic Pain Patients Swapped Opioids for Medical Cannabis

Cannabis and opioid medications both produce analgesic effects. This means they can block pain by intercepting the release of pain neurotransmitters in the brain and spinal cord. However, a significant difference between the two is that one can lead to dependence and notoriously claims many lives, and the other is accompanied by far less severe side effects. Researchers who recently published a survey they conducted, wanted to see whether medical cannabis has an effect on the usage of or even possibly replace opioid medications.

The Effect of Medical Cannabis on Prescription Opioids

The objective of the survey published in December 2020 explored “the effect that medical cannabis has on prescription opioid medication usage for the treatment of chronic pain at three medical cannabis practice sites”. Researchers Kevin Takakuwa and Dustin Sulak began by explaining that the opioid epidemic continues to “claim thousands of lives every year without an effective strategy in mitigating mortality”. The National Institute on Drug Abuse stated that more than 70,000 American lives were claimed by opioid prescription drugs in 2019 alone!

Cannabis has been identified as a potentially effective strategy to decrease opiate usage and the survey wanted to determine how the use of medical cannabis affects opioid prescription usage among patients with chronic pain. They conducted an online survey of patients from three medical practice sites. The participants had to have reportedly used opioid medications and the team managed to get a total of 1,181 respondents. Of those respondents, 656 were excluded on the basis that they did not use medical cannabis in combination with opioids for their pain. This left 525 qualifying participants who had continuously combined cannabis and opioid medications for at least three months. 

Many Patients Decreased or Completely Stopped Opioid Medication

Of the 525 qualifying participants, 204 of them reported stopping opioid use altogether while 228 reported a significant decrease in their opioid usage. At the same time, 67 reported no changes in their opioid usage and 6 reported an increase in opioid usage. Additionally, of the 525 participants, 299 reported having been able to sustain the changes in opioid usage for over a year. 

Results also revealed that 241 participants reported a 40-100% decrease in pain, while 420 reported improvements in their ability to function while 457 reported an improvement in their overall quality of life. Furthermore, 323 reported that they do not want to take opioid-based medications in the future. The survey also found that age and gender did not affect improvements in pain but they did find that the younger participants reported more significant increases in the quality of life.

The researchers looked at supporting research and found a couple of human model and animal model studies that support that medical cannabis usage in combination with the prescribed opioid medications leads to improved function, including improved sleep, as well as decreasing the side effects of the pharmaceutical medications while also reducing the build-up of opioid tolerance and reducing the possibility of opioid dependence. However, despite having studies that support the hypothesis of cannabis reducing opiate usage, it is still not widely accepted as a plausible option. 

America’s Cannabis Catch-22

The team explains that this unacceptance of cannabis for reducing opioid usage may stem from the fact that there are not enough well-designed clinical trials since they are inhibited by the federal law scheduling of cannabis. This leaves America in a catch-22 situation where they need more research and clinical trials to improve acceptance of cannabis as an effective tool for reducing opioid-related mortality rates along with reducing usage but can’t conduct those trials and research.

The three cannabis medical practices from Intergr8 Health, from which the participants were from, are located in Falmouth Main, Manchester Main, and Burlington Massachusetts. The study made sure to follow the practices of the Society of Cannabis Clinicians Practices Standards for Cannabis Approvals as set out by the Society of Cannabis CliniciansIntergr8 Health is an organization that specializes in medical cannabis which assists patients with maximizing the medical benefits of cannabis by offering safe and well-detailed treatment plans. They have over 18,000 patients across their three locations, but the study was only interested in patients who have used opioids. 

The survey concluded by discussing that their results revealed a “remarkable percentage of patients both reporting cessation of opioids and decreasing opioid usage by the addition of medical cannabis”.

By adding cannabis to the treatment plan, in combination with the opioid medication, patients’ health is better protected and the risks are reduced. The results of this survey are consistent with an ever-growing body of studies that also assess the relationship between cannabis and opioid usage. Risks of opioid usage include slowed breathing, constipation, nausea along with running the risk of misusing the drug and becoming addictive. One may not intend to misuse or abuse the drug but this can easily happen, especially when the patient is receiving multiple prescriptions for chronic use. It is also important to note that the slowed breathing can cause hypoxia, which is when too little oxygen reaches the brain. In the proper medical setting, these risks may be minimized and prevented by incorporating or even replacing opioid medication with medical cannabis.

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