By Pat Anson, PNN Editor
Two innovative studies have found evidence that medical marijuana can provide significant relief from a wide range of symptoms associated with chronic pain, including insomnia, seizures, depression, anxiety and fatigue.
Unlike many clinical trials that evaluate a small number of patients with surveys, researchers at the University of New Mexico relied on data from the Releaf App, a free mobile software program that collected user-entered, real-time information from over 2,800 people on their use of cannabis and its effects.
"If the results found in our studies can be extrapolated to the general population, cannabis could systematically replace multi-billion dollar medication industries around the world. It is likely already beginning to do so," said co-author Jacob Vigil, PhD, a UNM psychology professor.
In the first study, published in the journal Frontiers in Pharmacology, users reported an average symptom reduction of nearly 4 points on a 1-10 scale after the consumption of cannabis in various forms, including vaporizers, joints, oils and topicals.
Twenty-seven different health conditions were evaluated, from inflammation and tremors to muscle and nerve pain. Over 94 percent of cannabis users reported some type of symptom relief, with patients suffering from anxiety and depression having the greatest improvement.
“Clinically and statistically significant reductions in patient-reported symptom severity levels existed in every single symptom category, suggesting that cannabis may be an effective substitute for several classes of medications with potentially dangerous and uncomfortable side effects and risky polypharmaceutical interactions, including opioids, benzodiazepines, and antidepressants,” said Vigil.
“Our results indicate that patients report greater symptom relief for treating agitation/irritability, anxiety, depression, excessive appetite, insomnia, loss of appetite, nausea, gastrointestinal pain, stress, and tremors than they do for treating back pain. Patients reported less symptom relief for treating impulsivity, headache, and nerve pain as compared to relief for treating back pain.
The second study, recently published in the journal Medicines, focused on the use of cannabis flower (also known as “buds”) in treating insomnia. Over 400 patients self-reported their symptoms using the Releaf app. Researchers found the use of pipes and vaporizers to ingest cannabis was associated with greater symptom relief and fewer negative side effects than the use of joints. Cannabidiol (CBD) was also associated with greater symptom relief than tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the active ingredient in marijuana that causes euphoria.
A major weakness of both studies is that there was no control group or use of a placebo. Participants were also more likely to have previously used cannabis and may have been biased when reporting on their own symptoms. But UNM researchers say their findings are more representative of what cannabis users will actually experience.
“Observational studies are more appropriate than experimental research designs for measuring how patients choose to consume cannabis and the effects of those choices,” said Vigil. “By collecting massive amounts of patient-entered information on actual cannabis used under real-life circumstances we are able to measure why patients consume cannabis, the types of products that patients use, and the immediate and longer-term effects of such use.”
In addition to its therapeutic benefits, cannabis use was associated with frequent, although not serious side effects. Patients reported more positive feelings (relaxed, peaceful, comfy) than they did negative ones (paranoid, confused, headache).
"If the short-term risk-benefit profile of cannabis found in our studies reflects its longer-term therapeutic potential, substitution of cannabis for traditional pharmaceuticals could reduce the risk of dangerous drug interactions and the costs associated with taking multiple medications by allowing patients to treat a constellation of comorbidities with a single treatment modality,” said co-author Sarah See Stith, PhD, a UNM economics professor.