A review of published literature has found that chronic pain patients who use cannabis in addition to pharmaceutical medications showed a reduction in their use of opioids and required fewer visits to the emergency room. The study, “Medical cannabis for the reduction of opioid dosage in the treatment of non-cancer chronic pain: A systematic review,” was published last week in the journal Systematic Reviews.

To conduct the meta-analysis, researchers associated with the Mel and Enid Zuckerman School of Public Health at the University of Arizona searched online databases to identify original research conducted to study the effects of medical cannabis use as an adjunct therapy for patients using opioids to treat non-cancer chronic pain. A total of 2,440 unique studies were screened by the authors, who chose the full text of nine studies that qualified for inclusion in the review. The nine selected studies involved 7,222 participants with chronic pain not related to cancer, many of whom were able to reduce or eliminate their use of opioids with medical cannabis. 

The investigators documented “a much higher reduction in opioid dosage, reduced emergency room visits, and hospital admissions for chronic non-cancer pain by MC [medical cannabis] users, compared to people with no additional use of MC. There was 64 to 75 percent reduction in opioid dosage for MC users and complete stoppage of opioid use for chronic non-cancer pain by 32 to 59 percent of MC users, when compared to patients without additional use of MC.”

50 Million Americans Suffer Chronic Pain

The study noted that one in five Americans, or 50 million people, suffer from chronic pain not associated with cancer, the magnitude of which “has led to the proliferation of opioid prescriptions and addiction which is currently a public health concern in the USA.” The use of opioids carries significant risks, including the development of tolerance which can lead to the use of even higher doses and result in addiction.

“Given the current opioid epidemic in the USA and medical cannabis’s recognized analgesic properties, MC could serve as a viable option to achieve opioid dosage reduction in managing non-cancer chronic pain,” the authors of the study wrote in their conclusion.

While the study’s authors were able to document a therapeutic benefit from the use of medical cannabis in conjunction with prescription drugs for patients experiencing chronic pain, they were not yet ready to recommend its widespread use. They noted limitations of the research, such as the fact that the nine studies included in the analysis did not contain information about the dosage of medical cannabis used by patients, and called for further investigation.

“Although medical cannabis’ recognized analgesic properties make it a viable option to achieve opioid dosage reduction, the evidence from this review cannot be relied upon to promote MC as an adjunct to opioids in treating non-cancer chronic pain,” the researchers wrote.

“More so, the optimal MC dosage to achieve opioid dosage reduction remains unknown,” they continued. “Therefore, more research is needed to elucidate whether MC used in combination with opioids in the treatment of non-cancer chronic pain is associated with health consequences that are yet unknown.”

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