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Can Marijuana Treat Neuropathic Pain?

Medical marijuana is fast gaining recognition as an effective method of pain relief as studies continue to be published on the topic.

Although pain itself is a general term that encompasses a wide range of conditions, cannabis has been demonstrated to be useful in many of these cases.

In particular, recent studies have found that medical marijuana can provide substantial relief to those who suffer from neuropathic pain – a devastating and chronic condition that is treatment-resistant in more than half of all cases.

What is Neuropathic Pain?

Neuropathic pain is a specific type of pain that is usually a result of irritation or damage to a nerve.

These nerves can be located in the peripheral nervous system or the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord), or sometimes even both. Nerve damage can be caused by underlying diseases (such as HIV or diabetes) or injury (eg. stroke or spinal cord injury).

Medical marijuana’s potential as a treatment for neuropathic pain is particularly important as many patients are not responsive to traditional pharmaceutical treatments. Clinical trials show that less than half of all patients suffering from neuropathic pain gain any meaningful relief from taking prescription drugs.

What The Studies Say

A study published in 2012 by researchers at the University of California documented the effects of low (1.3% THC) and medium (3.5% THC) doses of vaporized cannabis on patients suffering from central and peripheral neuropathic pain. The study involved a group of 39 patients who were assessed for pain relief as well as cognitive performance (eg. attention, memory, learning and fine motor skills) after being administered cannabis.

The results showed that cannabis was effective in providing substantial pain relief in a large portion of the patients – 57% of the low dose group and 61% of the medium dose group. This translated to a NNT (number needed to treat) score of 3.2 and 2.9 for the low and medium dose groups respectively.

The NNT is an important measure of a drug’s effectiveness and represents the average number of patients that need to be treated in order for one patient to benefit – the ideal NNT is 1.

Surprisingly, these NNT scores are comparable, even appearing to be slightly better, than those of traditional pain medications (NNT for pregabalin = 3.9, NNT for gabapentin = 3.8).

Previous studies have also proven the effectiveness of cannabis in treating neuropathic pain. Two consecutive trials conducted by Dr. Donald Abrams and his research team found that cannabis relieved approximately half of patients suffering with pain from HIV-associated peripheral neuropathy.

Side Effects of Marijuana

A number of common side effects of using medical marijuana have been well-documented and were confirmed in the current study. As expected, a major side effect of cannabis administration was a temporary decline in cognitive performance, most prominently in learning and memory.

However, these side effects are generally considered acceptable to patients with chronic pain and none of the study subjects withdrew due to problems with tolerability. The study’s authors noted that side effects were less prominent at the lower dosage (1.3% THC) and were overall “unlikely to have significant impact on daily functioning”.