Fibromyalgia is a chronic pain condition with many symptoms. While research on marijuana is lacking, many say it can help.
Fibromyalgia is a painful disorder that affects around 8% of people worldwide. The disorder is more often seen in women. In fact, it affects about twice as many women compared to men. Although fibromyalgia is relatively common, it remains poorly understood.
Medical marijuana has the potential to relieve many symptoms of fibromyalgia, including pain. While there is still little research on the topic, many patients report benefits from using marijuana.
Overall, health professionals remain unsure about marijuana for fibromyalgia. Until more research is conducted, patients will have to rely on anecdotal reports and online surveys.
What is Fibromyalgia?
Fibromyalgia is a medical condition that results in widespread pain felt over the entire body. This pain is characterized further by deep tissue tenderness at specific spots known as tender points.
The core symptom of fibromyalgia is pain. Scientists believe that processes in the central nervous system (part of the nervous system consisting of the brain and spinal cord) underlie how this pain is felt.
Fibromyalgia cannot be diagnosed with a brain scan or other lab test. But doctors can perform a tender point test, examining painful sites on the body to help determine whether a person is suffering from fibromyalgia.
Symptoms of fibromyalgia include:
- Pain (especially joint pain)
- Muscle aches
- Sleep problems
- Fatigue or tiredness
- Concentration or memory problems known as “fibro fog”
- Irritable bowel syndrome (problems with diarrhea or constipation)
Aside from a heightened response to pain, sufferers often feel symptoms similar to the flu or the feeling of having worked long hours. Most experience fatigue or tiredness even when they have had enough sleep.
Patients often have severe stiffness in the morning that may last for hours. Those with fibromyalgia are usually tired when they get up in the morning or after doing common daily activities like grocery shopping or cooking dinner.
Fibromyalgia affects day-to-day living in an ongoing and disruptive way.
The causes of fibromyalgia are still unknown, but scientists believe it might involve a combination of genetic and environmental factors. This means the condition runs in families, and outside factors like psychological stress, trauma, or certain infections may all play a role in causing fibromyalgia.
Emerging clues about fibromyalgia hint that it may be linked to a dysfunctional stress response system or processes causing sensitivity in the central nervous system that could account for the pain.
Additionally, some scientists believe that the endocannabinoid system in those with fibromyalgia may be deficient. This endocannabinoid deficiency seems to cause an imbalance in the body as well as symptoms like sensitivity to pain as seen in fibromyalgia.
It is possible that the cannabinoids in marijuana, such as THC and CBD, could help treat fibromyalgia by stimulating the endocannabinoid system.
Can Marijuana Treat Fibromyalgia?
There are relatively few controlled studies of the role of marijuana in the treatment of fibromyalgia. But marijuana can often be prescribed for pain conditions, and some surveys suggest that fibromyalgia sufferers can find relief in marijuana.
Specifically, marijuana may help relieve symptoms like pain, sleep disturbance, stiffness, mood disorders, and digestive disturbances associated with fibromyalgia.
Current recommended treatments for fibromyalgia usually include a combination of exercise, cognitive behavioral treatment, mind-body awareness, and lifestyle changes. These may help overall quality of life but fall short on actual relief of symptoms.
Because other treatment options don’t always work, people who suffer from fibromyalgia often look for other options.
The potential for therapeutic effects associated with cannabis use may vary depending on the amount of cannabis used, concentration of cannabinoids, frequency of use, person’s age, previous experience, and use of other prescription or non-prescription drugs.
What Do Studies and Surveys Say?
1 in 8 Use Marijuana to Cope with Fibromyalgia
A Canadian study found that 1 out of every 8 people with fibromyalgia use marijuana (or cannabinoids) to treat their symptoms.
In the study, more men used marijuana to cope with fibromyalgia than women. Marijuana users also tended to be younger.
Interestingly, 77% of the cannabis users in the study were unemployed. The scientists suggested two explanations — either that marijuana was not improving their ability to function, or that patients who used marijuana were more severely affected with fibromyalgia in the first place.
Patients Report Marijuana Relieves Their Symptoms
In an online survey of over 1,300 fibromyalgia patients conducted by the National Pain Foundation, 62% of those who had tried marijuana said it was effective at treating their fibromyalgia.
For many sufferers, marijuana was the only treatment option that helped relieve their symptoms.
Another survey of fibromyalgia sufferers examined two groups: marijuana users and non-users. The survey found that sufferers used marijuana (smoking or eating) not only to alleviate pain but for relief of almost all of their other symptoms.
Most patients reported significant decreases in pain and stiffness, and increases in relaxation, sleep, and well-being 2 hours after cannabis use. There were also some side effects like dry mouth, dizziness or feeling sedated.
More than 80% of sufferers experienced relief of sleeplessness when they used marijuana. Overall, marijuana use improved symptoms and increased their sense of well-being.
Studies also show that synthetic cannabinoids may improve some symptoms of fibromyalgia.
A 2008 study in the Journal of Pain was the first randomized trial to look at nabilone (synthetic THC) as a treatment for fibromyalgia. The study reported that use of the synthetic cannabinoid in 40 patients with fibromyalgia resulted in a significant improvement in pain and other symptoms.
Another study conducted in 2010 examined the effects of nabilone on sleep in fibromyalgia patients and found a significant improvement.
The Bottom Line
For health professionals, the jury is still out on the use of medical marijuana for fibromyalgia. Experts remain skeptical due to a lack of properly controlled studies.
In other words, much of the evidence is based on the experience of a few patients rather than on clinical trials.
While doctors may consider recommending marijuana for sleep problems, they still want to see data from larger studies before prescribing it for fibromyalgia.
But for those suffering from this painful and debilitating condition, surveys and smaller studies suggest that marijuana may provide significant relief.