Celebrity doctors who channel their education into the pursuit of fame should be especially careful of misleading people with harmful advice. One wonders why Dr. Sanjay Gupta and more recently, Dr. Oz, are singing the praises of medical marijuana. Most likely the marijuana industry has been working hard to get their support.
Is Marijuana Use for Pain Driving Negative Societal Effects?
by Kenneth Finn, MD
Pain is the most common diagnosis associated with marijuana being recommended for medical use 1. With more states moving towards accepting marijuana use for medical purposes, there is a call from the medical and scientific community for more research and
evidence that it actually works for common pain conditions.
Out of the top 20 medical diagnoses presenting to the primary care physician nationally, there are only 3 that are associated with a painful condition 2: spinal disorders (i.e., lower back pain), arthropathies and related disorders (i.e., knee arthritis), and abdominal pain.
There were no other pain diagnoses in the top 20 diagnoses which present to the primary care physician for treatment, including cancer pain or neuropathic pain.
What does the medical literature tell us about the use of marijuana for pain? In 2011, The British Journal of Pharmacology released a paper looking at the use for cannabinoids for the treatment of chronic non-cancer pain 3. They narrowed a broad literature review to only 18 trials with a total of 925 participants. Most of the trials reviewed studied neuropathic pain (72%), including HIV neuropathy, in multiple sclerosis (3 trials), and single studies looked at arthritis or chronic spinal pain. There were only 4 studies which looked at smoked cannabis and in neuropathic pain only. Six studies evaluated synthetic cannabinoids (Dronabinol, Nabilione) for pain (off-label use).
From these trials, the average number of patients was 49 with average duration of 22 days, some of which were one week long. Despite their conclusion that cannabinoids may be helpful for chronic non-cancer pain, they note there were limitations with small sample sizes, modest effects, and stressed the need for larger trials of longer duration to determine safety and efficacy.
In 2015, the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) released an article on cannabinoids for medical use 4. Chronic pain was assessed in 28 studies, involving 63 reports and 2454 participants. 13 studies evaluated nabiximols (not available in the US), 4 for smoked THC, 6 evaluated synthetic THC, 3 for oromucosal spray, 1 for oral THC, 1 vaporized cannabis. The majority of studies looked at some form of neuropathic pain or cancer pain. Two studies were at low risk of bias, 9 at unclear risk, and 17 at high risk of bias. Studies generally suggested improvements in pain measures associated with cannabinoids but these did not reach statistical significance in most individual studies. Despite that, they concluded that there was moderate-quality evidence to suggest that cannabinoids may be beneficial for the treatment of chronic neuropathic or cancer pain (smoked THC and nabiximols). Note these are less common pain conditions that present to the physician for treatment nationally. The authors noted an increased risk of short-term adverse effects with cannabinoid use, including some serious adverse effects. Common adverse effects included asthenia, balance problems, confusion, dizziness, disorientation, diarrhea, euphoria, drowsiness, dry mouth, fatigue, hallucination, nausea, somnolence, and vomiting.
In 2017, The National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine released a paper on the health effects of cannabis and cannabinoids 5. It may be important to note that none of the authors had a background in Anesthesia or Pain Medicine. The authors felt the above JAMA article was the most comprehensive and that the medical condition most often associated with chronic pain in that article was a neuropathy and a majority of studies evaluated treatment with nabiximols, which are not available in the United States.
The committee found that only a handful of studies evaluated the use of cannabis and that many of the cannabis products sold in state regulated markets bear little resemblance to the products available for research at the federal level in the United States. They also note that very little is known regarding efficacy, dose, routes of administration, or side effects of commonly used and commercially available products in the United States. Despite that, they still concluded that “cannabis is an effective treatment for chronic pain in adults”.
The above noted papers are all that is available to the public and medical community and are the only information available regarding treatment of pain with marijuana. Despite that, the public has embraced that marijuana can treat all pain conditions and state governments have followed suit, without scientific evidence, and have allowed an industry to prosper on the thin ice of what is currently and scientifically available.
It is important to understand that pain covers a broad spectrum of disorders and pain of different origins does not necessarily respond the same to different medications. It is also important to understand that dispensary cannabis is considered a generic substance without defined or accepted dosing guidelines and will vary in purity as well as potency. It may also contain hundreds of other compounds, some of which may have physiologic activity. Cannabinoids are purified components of the plant which have been isolated in a
laboratory and have more scientific foundation, but are currently not available for study or use in pain conditions in the United States.
Since de facto legalization in Colorado in 2009, there has been a significant increase in public health and safety concerns, which include utilization of the health care system, an increase in adolescent substance use treatment for cannabis, as well as an increase in marijuana related driving fatalities 6. The addiction rates are reportedly 9% in the adult and roughly 18% in the adolescent, which was based on the potency of marijuana nearly 20 years ago. The potency has significantly increased in the past 5 years alone, so we are now in uncharted waters and unable predict the long term effects or addiction rates of currently available, highly potent products, with variable delivery systems.
As the number of medical marijuana patients increased in Colorado, there appears to be a parallel increase in the number of adolescents needing substance use treatment, most often for cannabis. Colorado is now contending with a huge opioid and heroin epidemic and despite the widespread availability of Narcan, does not appear to have leveled off or curb the number of opioid or heroin deaths in the state which continue to rise 7.
Although the concept of using marijuana to decrease opioid use is attractive and there is little data to suggest that may be the case. According to the CDC, the number of drug overdose deaths in Colorado has continued to increase, ahead of the national average 8. The above problems are now landing in the laps of other groups such as law enforcement and mental health providers who are pushing back and are straining their respective resources.
In summary, the problem of increased marijuana use has origin in its purported use for pain, but the medical literature is completely void of evidence for the treatment of common pain conditions with cannabinoids or cannabis. Current medical literature suggests benefit in less common pain conditions, with products not commercially available in the United States, or with synthetic THC, not with dispensary cannabis. The variability of available products changes regularly and their use in medicine, particularly pain, is unproven. The end game is in the court of law enforcement, mental health providers, the medical community, and our educational systems, at unknown societal costs, which are only now
Kenneth Finn, MD
Board Certified, Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation
Board Certified, Pain Management
Board Certified, Pain Medicine
American Board of Pain Medicine
The average medical marijuana cardholder in California is a 32-year-old male who uses it for chronic pain. If so many young people have so much chronic pain, it’s tempting to think medical marijuana is for “anyone who can fake an ache,” according to Professor Jon Caulkins of Carnegie Mellon
Two young women who wrote to Parents Opposed to Pot explained their need for medical marijuana to deal with traumatic childhoods. One said it was because her mother had committed suicide, while the other said she had experienced traumatizing sexual abuse.
Using marijuana in order to numb painful feelings, or for getting high, will only mask the underlying emotional pain. In all cases of psychological issues, including PTSD, marijuana works against true healing, no matter how much temporary relief it provides.
21st Century Strategies for Healing
Since pain or disease (dis ease) is imbalance, the body which created the disease can also be the body which heals the disease.
Dr. Libby Stuyt, a professional advisor to Parents Opposed to Pot uses Brain Synchronization Therapy to heal trauma in the body and bad memories. The neuroplasticity of the brain means that even post-traumatic experiences can be weakened or discarded. At the same time, the brain can relearn forgotten neural pathways.
Besides Brain Synchronization Therapy, Dr. Stuyt recommends both EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Recovery) and Biofeedback based on heart rate variability.
Treating Root Causes Rather than Just the Symptoms
The good news is that there are ways to treat PTSD and chronic pain that don’t involve drugs, ways that treat the root causes rather than symptoms. “Medical” marijuana does not provide deep healing.
Medical marijuana is an addiction-for-profit industry which needs new users and promotes long-term use. Habitual users run the risk of becoming psychotic. Like continuous opiate users, they may also develop addiction.
The recent report from National Academy of Science found marijuana can give moderate relief to three medical conditions, pain being one of the conditions. Although the human body has cannabinoid receptors, marijuana’s cannabinoids are foreign to our bodies. They’re not endo-cannabinoids, the body’s natural occurring chemicals, but exo-cannabinoids. With marijuana use over time, THC will replace the cannabinoids associated with joy and happiness.
Therefore, it’s hard to claim THC is truly “natural” for humans.
Mind-body healing solutions are the “natural” solutions, and they cannot be addictive. They offer help for chronic suffering in ways “medical” marijuana and pharmaceutical medicines cannot help.
I had my marijuana card for 10 years and was a daily smoker/dabber/edible eater/etc etc etc. I’m ashamed to admit that I was very much a part of the cannabis scene, what a complete and utter waste of time.
With that said, the best decision I ever made in my life was ripping my California “medical” marijuana doctor’s recommendation to shreds and making the decision to never touch that garbage again.
In my early 20s, I was really struggling with mental health issues that were impacting my ability to perform my duties at work. A close friend suggested I try medicinal marijuana so I went to get a doctor’s recommendation. The doctor, after a 5-minute visual and verbal examination, cheerfully told me to use marijuana, that it would help with PTSD and anxiety and I would feel like myself again.
From the outset, I became a different person, my usage of marijuana progressively stole a decade of my life from me, withdrew me from society and I developed a debilitating social anxiety and all of the other symptoms that are mentioned on this website. I watch day after day as marijuana proponents try to pass off junk science and yellow journalism as facts to justify their chemical dependence and it saddens me as much as it annoys me. The DEA was dead right when they said marijuana has little medical value and a high potential for abuse. Dead right. Recreational pot is a mistake. If future research begins to show clear and concise medical value then it should be dispensed through a pharmacy with careful, specific dosage instructions, not the free-for-all pass that I was given when I got my medical marijuana card. I can truly say that I feel more alive and healthier with each passing day now that the painful side effects of marijuana are no longer holding me captive. It is a blessing to talk to people who are caught in the grips of the marijuana trap and support them in finding freedom from it.
Today’s marijuana is incredibly potent and people need to start acknowledging the risks and potential dangers associated with heavy use.
By: Darren E.
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