As countries worldwide are suffering with opioid epidemics and increasing rates of opioid addiction, many people are looking to alternative methods for treating pain conditions. Medical cannabis use has become more and more popular in recent years for treating many of the same conditions as are traditionally treated with narcotic painkillers. But how do they work?
Let’s take a look at how both morphine and cannabis work with our bodies to relieve pain conditions and investigate exactly what side effects these drugs expose us to.
How does Morphine interact with the human brain?
Morphine is a widely used and trusted drug, that has been administered for patients for pain relief since the 19th century. It is a highly effective drug for treating pain quickly in the short term, such as during the recovery process of post-operative patients healing after surgery. Morphine, like other narcotics, works by attaching itself to opioid receptors in the brain through the bloodstream, which in turn depresses certain brain functions, like our pain receptors. This is how morphine works to diminish our sense of physical pain.
As physicians and doctors are more widely knowledgeable about morphine and its effects, and with decades of research to support its use, it is a familiar choice for medical professionals for treating patients for pain.
While morphine is an effective short-term painkiller, its ability to treat chronic pain conditions in the long run is problematic because the human body develops a tolerance to the drug over time, which results in patients having to take higher and higher doses of the drug. Morphine is also a highly addictive opioid, and this combined with increasingly high doses in patients can result in opioid addiction.
How does opioid addiction develop?
With extended opioid use over time, the brain detects higher binding rates at our opioid receptors and it intervenes to decrease the binding rate which makes the drug less effective. This means that patients using morphine to treat long-term chronic pain will need to take increased doses of the drug over time to get the same effects.
Opioid addiction is unfortunately a harmful and common side effect of patients relying on morphine for long term pain relief. Patients are at risk when they develop a psychological dependency on the drug, which when combined with an increased tolerance for progressively higher doses can result in accidental overdose. During an overdose, morphine depresses brain functions – including vital functions like respiration which keeps you breathing. Respiration failure is the most common cause of death in situations of morphine overdose.
How does Marijuana interact with the human brain/body?
While it is still widely termed as an illegal recreational drug, cannabis has actually been used in ancient medicine across various cultures for over 5,000 years.
Cannabis works by interacting with the cannabinoid receptors in the human brain, through two of the primary compounds present in the drug: THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) and CBD (cannabidiol). Instead of depressing brain receptors, THC actually treats pain by eliciting a state of euphoria while CBD works as an anti-inflammatory and mood-stabilizer.
While use over time may build up a tolerance to the psychoactive compounds of THC and subsequent feelings of euphoria, there is currently no research or evidence to suggest that use over time builds up a tolerance to the analgesic effects of cannabis.
Which is a more effective pain treatment?
Both drugs are highly effective at treating short term pain, however there are several things to keep in mind when thinking about how they work for long-term chronic pain conditions. Compared to morphine, cannabis poses a significantly lesser chance of addiction or abuse. While plenty of people may over-use or over-depend on the drug, there are no recorded fatal overdoses from cannabis in the history of the drugs widespread use.
One positive side effect of cannabis is reduced nausea and an increased appetite, making it a particularly effective replacement for morphine and traditional opioids in treating cancer patients suffering from chemotherapy induced nausea. Morphine use on the other hand poses physical side effects like gastrointestinal discomfort and constipation.
There are adverse side effects to cannabis use, most of which stem from its status as an illegal drug which inhibits large scale medical trials and testing. Because of its status as an illicit substance, strains cannot be regulated for levels of THC and other active compounds, and doses that are too high lead to side effects like paranoia. Since there is no federal regulation of the drug, results and effects can vary widely from different producers.
Can I use both drugs together?
The short answer is yes – you can! Because morphine works through our brains opioid receptors and cannabis works through our separate cannabinoid receptors, both drugs can be used in conjunction together for medical treatment. Using cannabis in conjunction with morphine lowers the required dose of morphine, which in turn reduces the chances of increased tolerance and opioid addiction.