Medical cannabis has been available in Canada since 2001—and it’s proven particularly effective at treating chronic pain conditions, especially arthritis. In fact, the number one reason people request medical cannabis is for joint pain.
Arthritis, a term that refers to most forms of joint pain, is often extremely uncomfortable and severely limits the quality of life for those suffering from it. But marijuana legalization presents an exciting moment for arthritis and other chronic pain patients. If you suffer from arthritis or you know someone who does, you’re probably wondering whether cannabis could help—here’s what you need to know.
How Does Arthritis Develop?
Arthritis refers to not one but rather more than 100 medical conditions. It’s essentially defined as inflammation or pain of the joints or other body parts.
There are two types of arthritis:
- Osteoarthritis: This is the most common form of arthritis and happens when the cartilage between bones breaks down either over time or as the result of injury. Without cartilage, bones come into contact with one another, which causes immense pain. While osteoarthritis is commonly thought to be a side effect of aging, other factors like obesity, work history, injuries and genetics also increase your likelihood of developing osteoarthritis.
- Inflammatory arthritis: The second type of arthritis is called inflammatory arthritis. With inflammatory arthritis, joint pain isn’t caused by a wearing away of the cartilage, but rather by inflammation of the joints. There are many types of inflammatory arthritis, including rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, gout and psoriatic arthritis.
How Marijuana Can Help Ease Joint Pain
One of the exciting developments in recent years for arthritis sufferers is the prospect of using legal cannabis to manage pain. There are many indicators that cannabis is an effective treatment for arthritis. A lot of anecdotal evidence from arthritis sufferers around the world suggests that medical cannabis helps alleviate joint pain and improves their quality of life. About two thirds of Canadian medical marijuana patients currently take cannabis to treat arthritis pain.
You may be surprised to learn, however, that not a lot of clinical research has been done on cannabis’s effectiveness for treating arthritis. This lack of research is an unfortunate side effect of nearly a century of marijuana prohibition, which severely limited scientists’ ability to look at how cannabis could be used to treat health problems. Fortunately, that situation is changing and recent research, including pre-clinical trials on animals, is offering tantalizing evidence that cannabis may alleviate arthritis pain.
How Is Arthritis Currently Treated?
Current arthritis treatments can include both over-the-counter and prescription drugs, such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), acetaminophen and opioids. The specific type of treatment depends on a number of different factors, including the type of arthritis, the age of the patient, pain levels and the patient’s medical history.
All of the drugs currently used to treat joint pain have limitations or side effects:
- Acetaminophen is often used to treat mild osteoarthritis, for example, but patients suffering from severe pain often find it isn’t strong enough.
- NSAIDs are commonly used to manage more moderate pain, but they’re designed for short-term use and can lead to serious side effects such as stomach ulcers, dizziness and kidney failure if used for more than 10 consecutive days.
- Opioids are an option for alleviating severe pain. But while they’re effective at managing pain, they include a lot of dangerous side effects, including drug addiction, as tragically proven by the current opioid epidemic.
Consuming Cannabis for Arthritis Pain
The limitations with current pharmaceutical treatments for arthritis is one reason why there’s so much excitement around cannabis legalization. With prohibition laws finally being dismantled, more clinical research can be done to better assess how effective marijuana is at treating chronic pain.
In the meantime, if you’re looking for advice on how to take cannabis to treat arthritis, you may be frustrated by a lack of reliable information. Many reputable organizations and health groups dedicated to arthritis will often simply tell arthritis sufferers to “talk to their physicians” or will only say that they’re waiting for more research before recommending cannabis to their members.
Of course, if you’re suffering from arthritis you should talk to your physician before starting any new pain treatment. But if you’ve decided that cannabis may work for you, then here’s how you can make it part of your treatment plan.
Cannabis for arthritis and joint pain is usually best administered topically, meaning it’s applied to the skin right where you feel pain. Arthritis patients like this method because they can target specific areas of the body; it’s fast acting, smoke-free and doesn’t result in any psychoactive effects (unless they’re talking about a transdermal patch).
However, even after cannabis becomes legal in October, you won’t find cannabis topicals at any licensed cannabis retailer. That’s because legalization won’t cover topical marijuana. But what you can do is purchase cannabis oil and mix it into your favorite cream or lotion to create your own cannabis topical.
Or, licensed producer MedReleaf has created its own DIY topical product—you can purchase one of their cannabis oils and their topical cream, which is formulated specifically to work with their marijuana oils.
You can also go for a cannabis softgel or sublingual oil to help alleviate joint inflammation. The softgel will take longer to take effect, but cannabis that you take sublingually generally starts to work for most people in about 15–20 minutes.
Many arthritis patients choose to vape or smoke cannabis, as the effects are near immediate. But it all depends on how fast you need relief and how you’re most comfortable consuming cannabis.
No matter what consumption method you choose, look for cannabis products that have a high percentage of cannabidiol (CBD), as this is the cannabis compound that has proven anti-inflammation and anti-pain properties.
You may also want to consider taking cannabis alongside other complementary therapies like massage, meditation, exercise and yoga. While complementary therapies aren’t a replacement for proven medications, many arthritis sufferers find they help relieve pain and improve their quality of life.
If you’re thinking about consuming cannabis to treat your arthritis, always talk to your doctor first. HelloMD offers video consultations with health practitioners who know about cannabis and how it works in the body. You can also go to our Answers page to post a marijuana question you have, and someone from our cannabis community will be happy to answer it for you.
Photo credit: Cristian Ismael Martínez Nieto