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Marijuana and Chronic Pain
Cannabis and Chronic Pain

Marijuana is an effective painkiller, and scientists believe it may help some people to quit opiates.

Chronic pain is becoming more and more common worldwide. Addictive opioid painkillers are frequently prescribed for chronic pain, leaving many patients dependent on them. These medications also pose a high risk of accidental overdose.

Marijuana is known to be an effective painkiller for many conditions. Studies have shown that marijuana can be used successfully in place of, or alongside opiates to treat pain.

The benefits of using marijuana to treat pain include its lack of overdose risk, and relatively mild potential for addiction.

Here, we explore the benefits of using marijuana to treat pain, and how it compares to opiate pain medications.

What is Chronic Pain?

What is Chronic Pain
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Pain is an unfortunate, but universal human experience. Pain can be felt physically and emotionally, and can be acute (short-term) or chronic (long-lasting).

The top reasons people experience pain include injury, illness and disease, emotional trauma, and long-term wear and tear.

Chronic pain is becoming an increasing health issue in the modern world. It is defined as any pain lasting for more than 12 weeks.

One in five people in the world suffer from moderate to severe chronic pain, according to the World Health Organization.

Surgery is among the most common reasons for chronic pain. In Canada, 50% of surgery patients are left with chronic pain even after using prescribed pain medications. In the U.S., chronic pain is also a common symptom post-surgery.

Millions of people in the U.S. and Canada experience chronic pain annually.

Conventional Treatments For Pain

The most common treatments for chronic pain are pharmaceutical painkillers, often taken in pill form. Some common pain medications include:

  • Acetaminophen, such as Tylenol
  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as aspirin and ibuprofen (Advil)
  • Antidepressants
  • Corticosteroids
  • Opiate pain medications, such as hydrocodone (Vicodin), oxycodone (Percocet, OxyContin) and fentanyl

Can Marijuana Treat Pain?

Can Marijuana Treat Pain
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Evidence suggests that marijuana is an effective painkiller when it comes to chronic pain and neuropathic pain. Compounds in marijuana have both pain-relieving and anti-inflammatory effects.

Some doctors may prescribe marijuana as an alternative to prescription painkillers.

Cannabinoids Can Relieve Chronic Pain

The Journal of American Medical Association (JAMA) published a 2015 study that found cannabis use for chronic pain and neuropathic pain is supported by “high-quality evidence.”

The study analyzed six trials that looked at a total of 325 patients with chronic pain and six trials that looked at 396 patients with neuropathic pain.

The study concluded that marijuana and cannabinoids are likely effective for these conditions.

Studies show that both THC and CBD have analgesic and anti-inflammatory effects.

Doctors Recommend Marijuana For Pain

Some doctors believe that medical marijuana is safer than opiates, because of its low risk of addiction and overdose. In fact, it is impossible to die from a cannabis overdose.

And while marijuana addiction is possible, it’s both less common and less severe than opiate addiction. Finally, marijuana has few side effects when compared with opioid drugs.

For these reasons, some doctors recommend the use of cannabis rather than prescription drugs for treating pain.

States with medical marijuana dispensaries have seen a 15-35% reduction in substance abuse admissions and opiate overdoses, according to recent data derived via public-health records.

Opiates and the Opioid Crisis

Opiates and the Opioid Crisis
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Opioid pain medications are closely related to the illicit drug heroin. These medications are highly addictive and come with severe withdrawal symptoms if used over time.

Common opiates include household names like morphine, codeine, Vicodin, Percocet, OxyContin, and fentanyl.

Opiates have a high potential for overdose, because the amount required to manage pain is very close to a lethal dose. They are also frequently overprescribed, meaning doctors give patients more than what they need, further increasing their risk.

Drug overdose is the number one cause of accidental death in the United States. Prescription painkillers are the leading cause of drug overdose deaths.

Opiate addiction has also been declared an epidemic in the U.S. and Canada. According to statistics from the American Society of Addiction Medicine, an estimated 2 million Americans have a prescription painkiller substance use disorder.

There are many problems with opiate pain medications. This leaves health professionals and policymakers searching for alternatives, and many are considering cannabis.

Marijuana vs. Opiates

Marijuana vs. Opiates
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Research suggests that marijuana can replace opiate drugs as a painkiller, or be used alongside opiates to reduce the need for these drugs. Marijuana is also thought to reduce the development of opiate tolerance and withdrawal.

While initial evidence is promising, scientists have only scratched the surface when it comes to looking at the potential for marijuana to replace opiates and other pain medications.

Cannabis is a Common Substitute for Opiates

A 2017 survey conducted by HelloMD and UC Berkeley investigated whether cannabis was a common substitute for opiate painkillers.

The survey was administered online to a random sample of over 67,000 patients in the HelloMD database with a mean age of 40.

16% of participants reported that pain was their primary condition, but when other conditions known to cause pain were taken into account — such as menstrual cramps, fibromyalgia, back pain, arthritis, etc. — that percentage increased to 63%.

The study concluded that cannabis substitution for opiate and non-opiate pain medications is common among pain patients. Overall, subjects reported that cannabis works well as a substitute for, as well as in tandem with, both opiate and non-opiate pain medications.

Cannabis and Opiates Work Better Together

A 2011 study at the University of California, San Francisco, led by Dr. Donald Abrams found that medical marijuana taken alongside opiates can help patients reduce their pain symptoms.

The study looked at the interaction between cannabis and opiates taken together and was the first of its kind.

The researchers concluded that the combination of cannabis and opiates reduced pain more effectively than using opiates on their own. Previous studies in mouse models found similar results.

Cannabis Can Help With Opiate Withdrawal

A 2012 review published in the Journal of Psychoactive Drugs found that marijuana can lead to greater pain relief when used together with opiates, which can lead to an overall reduction in the amount of opiates a patient uses.

The study also found that marijuana can reduce the development of tolerance, as well as withdrawal from opiates.

Other studies suggest that using marijuana can help reduce the severity of symptoms during opiate withdrawal.


Marijuana is an effective painkiller, and it shows promise as a replacement for opioid pain medications.

Studies show that marijuana may help reduce tolerance to opioids as well as withdrawal symptoms. Marijuana can also work together with opiates, helping them to be more effective at lower doses.

Opioid pain medications are widely prescribed to treat chronic pain, but these drugs pose the risk of addiction and overdose.

Marijuana shows promise as a safer alternative to treat pain, and may help some people avoid or reduce their use of dangerous painkillers.