Getting old isn’t for the weak. “Chronic pain is no stranger to many Canadians—nearly 20% of adults live with it on a daily basis,” reports Hamilton, Ontario’s McMaster University Optimal Aging Portal. “Unfortunately, the odds of suffering from chronic pain increase with age, and women are more likely to be affected than men.”
And neuropathic pain, caused by nerve damage, accounts for 20% of chronic pain cases. Unfortunately, medications traditionally prescribed for other types of pain, such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories or opioids, are often ineffective for neuropathic pain.
But medical marijuana is commanding growing interest as another way to address neuropathic pain, with research that shows some promise. Most do admit candidly that the study samples are small, and so much more research needs to done.
Anecdotal Evidence for Cannabis as an Option to Ease Nerve Pain
Many people who suffer from unrelenting neuropathic discomfort—which can range from sharp, jabbing pains to extreme sensitivity to prickling and tingling with the onset of numbness—are willing to listen to anecdotal testimonies of other sufferers.
For example, last year HelloMD spoke to Adrion, a New York single mother of three who successfully uses medical marijuana to treat multiple conditions and neuropathies.
After failed surgery on her thumb, her condition worsened because of injuries from a car accident. Adrion finally found relief taking a cannabidiol (CBD) oil as well as vaping the cannabinoid.
“It lessens the spasms and cramps that I get which take over my hands and they’re stuck for a minute,” she says. “I’m not getting that anymore. Cannabis doesn’t take [the spasms] away permanently, but it controls them. It’s wonderful.”
And she adds: “Cannabis allows you not to focus so much on the pain. I’m supposed to take it every eight hours, so if I’m consistent with the [oil], it levels the pain. I can be active and not have to focus on my back, neck or ankle; I don’t have to dread the pain.”
Causes & Treatments for Neuropathy
Neuropathy is a disease or dysfunction of the peripheral nerves, typically causing weakness, numbness and, of course, pain.
According to the Mayo Clinic, “Your peripheral nervous system sends information from your brain and spinal cord to the rest of your body. Peripheral neuropathy can result from traumatic injuries, infections, metabolic problems, inherited causes and exposure to toxins. One of the most common causes is diabetes mellitus.”
In many cases, symptoms can improve, especially if treatable conditions, such as alcoholism and diabetes cause the pain. Other causes of nerve pain can include:
- Autoimmune diseases
- Exposure to poisons like heavy metals
- Inherited disorders
- Trauma or pressure on the nerve
- Vitamin deficiencies
- Bone marrow disorders
Typically, treatments for neuropathic pain involve:
- A healthier diet
- Increased exercise
- Over-the-counter pain relievers
- Prescribed opioids
- Anti-seizure medications
- Topical treatments
- Physical therapy
- Plasma exchange
- Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation
Studies on the Benefits of Cannabis for Neuropathic Pain
As an alternative to traditional neuropathy treatments—to avoid the addiction risks of opioids, for example—or to complement them, many people are trying medical marijuana. The evidence for their efficacy lies in studies like “Medical Cannabis for Neuropathic Pain,” which appeared in Current Pain and Headache Reports last year.
It examined “current basic scientific research and data from recent randomized controlled trials (RCTs) evaluating medical cannabis for the treatment of neuropathic pain.”
The study concluded: “[The RCTs] demonstrated efficacy of medical cannabis for treating neuropathic pain. Although limited by small sample sizes and short duration of study, the evidence appears to support the safety and efficacy of short-term, low-dose cannabis vaporization and oral mucosal delivery for the treatment of neuropathic pain.
“The results suggest medical cannabis may be as tolerable and effective as current neuropathic agents; however, more studies are needed to determine the long-term effects of medical cannabis use.”
In contrast, some other reputable studies only provide lukewarm recommendations for taking cannabis to ease neuropathic symptoms. For example, McMaster Optimal Aging Portal claims:
“A recent systematic review found that compared to placebo, cannabis-based medications may provide moderate to substantial pain relief, and can reduce pain intensity, sleep problems and psychological distress.
“Unfortunately, these benefits are often associated with side effects such as sedation, confusion, and psychosis. … Overall, the quality of the research around cannabis for neuropathic pain relief is low.”
What Works Best to Relieve Neuropathic Pain?
Cannabis’s tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and CBD are the two main compounds responsible for pain relief. CBD contains anti-inflammatory properties, and THC combats body pain as it reduces stress and anxiety.
To find what works best for you may require trying different methods of consumption and playing around with THC and CBD levels. In looking at the two main types of marijuana plants—indica and sativa—a 2014 survey of medical cannabis consumers may give some insight. The 95 people who took the survey reported that while sativa strains could improve energy and mood, indica was best for pain management, sedation and sleep.
A couple of indica strains worth trying include:
- Afghan Kush: Hailing from the Hindu Kush mountain range along the Afghan-Pakistan border, this strain’s soothing body-numbing effects are great for dealing with pain.
- White Widow: This classic cannabis strain comes from a cross between two indigenous cannabis strains: a sativa strain from Brazil and an indica strain from South India. It’s known for its pain-relieving, stress-reducing and sleep-promoting qualities, with potent cerebral effects that can border on psychedelic.
While more research on the effectiveness of medical marijuana in treating neuropathic conditions needs to be done, the anecdotal evidence strongly suggests that cannabis can ease pain and improve mood.
Photo credit: Juan Pablo Arenas