Can You Use Medical Marijuana for Back Pain?

June 19, 2019

Medical Marijuana
Sarah Handzel, BSN, RN

As the debate about medical marijuana rages, many people are turning to cannabis as a treatment solution for all types of medical issues. Once, it was only prescribed to patients dealing with diseases like cancer. But now, doctors now prescribe medical marijuana for all sorts of issues, such as chronic pain, gastrointestinal problems and neurological issues.

Medical marijuana is legal in 33 states and the District of Columbia. Many people use medical marijuana for back pain, reporting that cannabis helps reduce pain levels more effectively — and safely — than other medications like opioids. But what does the current research say? Is medical cannabis a better alternative to traditional treatment options, or should it be used in conjunction with other therapies? And if you're interested in medical marijuana, how do you know which kind to use?

Cannabis and Chronic Pain

It is estimated that as many as 40 percent of American adults suffer from chronic pain issues, including chronic back pain, which can be difficult to manage. Ongoing back pain can significantly reduce quality of life by affecting mobility, increasing your risk for depression and other psychological problems and interfering with your sleep.

Many doctors prescribe conventional medications for pain management, but these often fall short of treatment goals. As a result, more practitioners are turning to marijuana as an adjunct to traditional pain management therapies.

Research indicates that pharmacologically active compounds contained in marijuana, called cannabinoids, act on specific receptors located throughout the body. These receptors are located in the brain, spinal cord, peripheral nerves and some immune system cells. When receptors are activated by cannabinoids, symptoms such as pain and inflammation are affected. For many, the symptoms of chronic pain are reduced or disappear completely.

Marijuana and Back Pain Research

Research into medical marijuana for back pain is still in its infancy, but already several studies and clinical trials suggest cannabis is an effective alternative to traditional pain medications.

In 2017, Hill et al. completed a clinical review of current research. Their findings included:

  • Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), a clinically active component in marijuana, has analgesic (pain-relieving) effects in animal models.
  • In humans, medium doses of smoked cannabis result in significant decreases in pain.
  • Compared to placebos, cannabinoids are associated with greater pain reduction.

Other studies also suggest marijuana's beneficial effects. Recent examples include:

  • Bellnier et al., who report that patients using medical marijuana for chronic pain experienced better pain outcomes and improved quality of life.
  • Bruce et al., found that medical marijuana complements prescription medications for pain management. Also, cannabis may be used as an effective pain management strategy while tapering off prescription medications.
  • Crestani et al., who demonstrated that cannabis reduces pain intensity, improves daily functionality, and helps reduce depression and anxiety symptoms.

Additionally, Piper et al., found that medical marijuana users with chronic pain self-report improved quality of life, reduced pain levels and improved sleep. They also don't worry about overdosing on marijuana like they would with other prescription drugs. In some cases, users choose to incorporate medical cannabis into treatment plans using other alternative pain management tools.

Cannabis Strains for Pain Management

There are three different types of marijuana plants: cannabis indica, cannabis sativa and hybrids of the two. While there is no medically proven best strain of cannabis for back pain, medical marijuana users self-report that the different strains are good for managing different symptoms. In general, cannabis indica strains are preferred for pain management, sleep and sedation. Cannabis sativa strains are usually used to boost mood and energy levels.

Further research is needed to determine the scope of benefits for cannabis for back pain. Also, we need to better understand the risks associated with medical marijuana use. But initial investigations show that many people report lower pain levels thanks to medical marijuana. If you're interested in this therapy, and it's legal in your state, ask your doctor about incorporating medical cannabis into your treatment plan.

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