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How to Use Cannabis in Addressing Pain

Pain is one of the most common kinds of symptoms for a wide variety of diseases, with over 38 million people in the US alone suffering from at least one kind of chronic pain. Patients suffering from joint problems feel pain when their joints move, chest pains are common among people with cardiovascular disease, headaches often accompany fever, migraines, and even more serious problems such as infections or cancer.

Although there are already many types of medication for addressing pain, most of the options available today are not entirely safe. Constant use of painkillers to manage the pain may also cause long-term damage to the digestive tract. Furthermore, the costs of pain medication can quickly add up, especially if combined with medication for the disease that's causing the pain. Fortunately, many people searching for pain relief have already found a good alternative in the form of cannabis.

Just a few decades ago, cannabis (also known as weed or marijuana) was viewed as nothing more than an illegal drug and associated almost exclusively with stoners. Today, clinical studies and recent changes to laws on the regulation of the herb have transformed the public's general view on the drug. More importantly, cannabis is now viewed as a highly versatile, albeit controversial, analgesic.

Consumable cannabis is usually available in two forms:

  • The buds of the cannabis plant can be dried, cleaned, and burned so the smoke can be inhaled (similar to tobacco)
  • Cannabis concentrates can be extracted from the plant and either vaporized and inhaled or mixed with food or topical creams

Although either form will provide pain relief and other effects associated with cannabis, experts recommend cannabis oil for pain because it has a higher concentration of the substance's active ingredients.

Active Ingredients: THC and CBD

What makes cannabis such an effective pain relief option is its cannabinoids. There are dozens of cannabinoids in a single dosage of cannabis, but two of them stand out in particular: THC and CBD. THC or tetrahydrocannabinol is linked to the psychoactive effects of marijuana, but it has been shown to have pain-relieving properties. CBD or cannabidiol also has pain-relieving properties, but research also shows that it counteracts THC's psychoactive effects.

Cannabinoids work by interacting with the body's endocannabinoid system, which is a series of neurotransmitters that regulate different body functions including metabolism, stress response, and sensitivity to pain. These receptors are activated by endocannabinoids— chemical compounds that are produced by the human body, and that are very similar to the cannabinoids. Incidentally, CBD also happens to increase the amount of endocannabinoids produced by the body.

Using Cannabis for Pain Relief

Understanding the effects of THC and CBD is crucial for using cannabis as an effective pain relief solution. Different symptoms of pain may require different intake methods, dosages, and even cannabis strains to ensure the best results.

Inhalation

One of the most popular ways to consume cannabis is by inhaling the smoke or vapors. As it turns out, it is also an effective method for users looking for immediate pain relief. A research from 2014 shows that a dose of cannabis administered using an inhaler provides a significant reduction among people suffering from chronic pain in as little as 20 minutes. Although the effects still varied from patient to patient, further studies can lead to the development of better inhalers that can hopefully make cannabis more consistent and effective to meet today's pharmaceutical standards.

Oral

For centuries, different civilizations have used cannabis for dealing with chronic pain. However, it's only recently that researchers started giving this aspect of cannabis use a closer look. A study conducted in 2008 showed that patients with Chronic Nonmalignant Pain (CNMP) that were already unresponsive to conventional medicine have experienced good results after taking oral THC. The research sheds light on the possible development of oral cannabinoids especially for patients that have already built a resistance to conventional pain relief solutions.

Smoking

Although smoking seems to be the most popular method of consuming cannabis, there are strong concerns regarding its adverse effects. In a 2005 survey conducted in Australia, users agreed that smoking cannabis, especially when smoked along with tobacco, was detrimental to their respiratory health. This method of cannabis consumption seems to be popular because it is easy to prepare a blunt or a bong, and because most people aren’t aware of other ways of taking in marijuana, except through smoking.

Eating Cannabis-infused Food

The second most popular method of consuming cannabis for pain relief is by including cannabis oil in regular food recipes. Common recipes include brownies and cookies, but the extracted cannabis can also be added to almost any regular recipe and, in some cases, even beverages. Users that consume cannabis-infused food claim that this method of consumption seemed to "do the job" of providing significant relief. Furthermore, this method is more viable for cannabis users who have respiratory problems or those who are non-smokers by choice.

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Cannabis Versus Common Pain-related Problems

Unlike some types of pain relief medication, cannabis works on relieving all kinds of pain. The following diseases can be made more tolerable by cannabis consumption:

1. Rheumatoid Arthritis

In a study conducted in 2006, researchers observed a significant improvement among patients suffering from rheumatoid arthritis, one of the most common causes of pain among older people. Over the course of 5 weeks, the patients were given Sativex, a nasal spray made of cannabis extract. Aside from providing pain relief, the consumption of cannabis also helped reduce further progress of the disease following the treatment.

2. Muscle Pain Caused by Injury

Muscle pain caused by physical injury may be common, and severe cases may keep people from recovering and may even affect the body's overall mobility. Early studies on marijuana's pain-relieving and anti-inflammatory effects can be seen in a 2002 experiment, in which a patient who was suffering from chronic pain due to a work-related accident consumed marijuana for two weeks. A physical examination showed improvements on all affected muscles, tendons, and joints, and the patient also claimed to have better pain control since using cannabis.

3. Multiple Sclerosis

Multiple sclerosis is a serious condition that affects the brain and the spinal cord. The damage to the nerves around the brain can cause a painful sensation in the chest, head, and limbs. In an older study, a middle-aged woman suffering from multiple sclerosis was given a small dose of marijuana (3 to 4 puffs of smoke) before going to bed. After the 6-month treatment, the patient reported no adverse effects and improvement not just in managing pain but also in sleep quality. These improvements were observed soon after switching to cannabis, just after receiving legal access to the drug.

4. Diabetes

Diabetes can cause extensive damage on the nerves just like multiple sclerosis. Patients with serious cases of diabetes may experience numbness in the extremities, tingling sensations, or neuropathic pain. In a 2015 study, patient suffering from diabetic neuropathy were given controlled doses of cannabis with various concentrations of THC. While all patients that were administered cannabis showed signs of improvement compared to the control (placebo) group, the ones who received the highest concentrations of THC showed the most drastic improvement.

5. Premenstrual Syndrome

Women suffering from menstrual syndrome can experience different kinds of pain leading to the days of menstruation. In many cases, headaches, bloated stomachs, and cramps can be severe enough to keep a person from performing productive tasks. According to researchers, the THC in cannabis can also act as a muscle relaxant in addition to having anti-inflammatory and analgesic effects. Cannabis taken for dealing with pain caused by PMS can be taken topically when mixed with cream or applied in a transdermal patch for faster relief.

6. Migraine and Other Headaches

Although migraine can be caused by a lot of possible triggers, this common type of headache is always characterized by moderate or severe pain. Short bouts of migraine are easy to manage, but migraine attacks that can last for up to 72 hours can be debilitating, especially in the long run. Careful selection of cannabis strains is important when treating different kinds of headaches. According to a report published in 2017, cannabis can be a key factor in reducing pain, but it can also provoke other effects that might aggravate other symptoms.

7. Overexertion and Fatigue

Over-exertion and lack of proper rest can cause soreness in the affected muscles and joint pain. Once sore muscles and tendonitis set in, a person may have to deal with chronic pain for weeks or months while also losing flexibility and strength in the affected areas of the body. Consuming cannabis can help provide pain relief and reduce the amount of swelling in an affected area, preventing the risk of reducing their overall mobility. Patients may keep consuming marijuana to make a months-long recovery process more manageable.

8. Post-surgery Pain

The weeks or months after a major surgery can be accompanied by constant pain, which can affect the speed of the recovery process. Unfortunately, conventional painkillers can have serious side effects, especially since people who have gone through operations have to take other kinds of medication such as antibiotics and supplements that can put a strain on the liver and kidneys. Fortunately, marijuana is an effective but safe substance, with very little serious side effects.

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Responsible Use of Cannabis for Pain Relief

Despite having fewer risks compared to taking regular pain medication on a regular basis, improper consumption of cannabis can lead to several problems. Users must be responsible when consuming marijuana so that they can ensure good results and minimize any negative effects that might occur.

The most important part of consuming cannabis is to make sure the user is getting just the right amount. Too much of the substance can lead to hypersensitivity, which can aggravate discomfort and pain. On the other hand, too little cannabis might not result in any significant pain relief.

Tolerance to cannabis can also have an effect on how well cannabis can provide pain relief. Over time, regular consumption of the substance can cause the body to become more tolerant, requiring larger doses over time to achieve the same results. To avoid this, users may refrain from using the drug for about 2-3 days or switch to a different cannabis strain on a regular basis.

Although cannabis is not as addictive as caffeine, alcohol, or nicotine, it’s quite possible to build up a tolerance to the herb. Aside from controlling the amount of cannabis intake, it's important for a patient to consult a physician if they think they are developing signs of addiction. Fortunately, abstaining from cannabis rarely causes severe withdrawal symptoms so cutting down the dosage in larger increments or quitting cold turkey is relatively safe.

Choosing how to consume marijuana is important when it comes to addressing specific types of pain. For example, an edible may need a few hours before it takes effect, so it is not suitable for providing immediate pain relief compared to inhalers or smoking the substance. On the other hand, the same fast-acting methods of consuming cannabis might not produce a long-lasting effect, which is important if the patient is taking cannabis for chronic pain or before going to bed.

Cannabis may work as an excellent alternative to conventional medicine, but unless the patient receives proper authorization from their physician, it's not advisable to use cannabis as a complete substitute to what was originally prescribed by the professionals. If a patient wishes to make the switch to cannabis, they must do so with the recommendation or approval of a licensed medical expert.

Even today, researchers have yet to fully explore the medical potential of cannabis. Hopefully, further studies can lead to the development of more effective strains and methods of consumption. This can be instrumental in introducing the substance to the general public as a go-to solution for various health problems that, in this day and age, can only be remedied by conventional medicine.