Medical Benefits of Cannabis vs. Prescription Pain Medications
The medicinal properties of marijuana, also known as cannabis, means the plant can be used safely in the treatment of chronic health conditions that are associated with severe pain. Currently, millions of patients nationwide are being treated with traditional prescription medications for pain associated with their health conditions. Unfortunately, many of these prescription pain medications are using derivatives or synthetic versions of opiates. These medications have a number of debilitating side effects, and many are also very addictive and prone to abuse. There are alternatives.
As more medical benefits of cannabis are discovered and researched, more and more patients in states with medical marijuana programs are opting for the medicinal properties of marijuana for managing pain over prescription pain medications. For many seriously ill people, using marijuana for medical purposes is the only form of medicine that provides relief of their pain and suffering, without the debilitating side effects associated with some pharmaceutical drugs. Many people are considering the medical benefits of cannabis over traditional prescription pain medications or using medical cannabis in conjunction with prescription medications to mitigate severe side effects of treatment for cancer. For Utah Medical Cardholders with health conditions associated with severe pain, the medicinal benefits of marijuana provide a natural alternative for reducing pain that can, in turn, reduce the number of prescription pain medications required to manage pain levels or eliminate the need for them altogether.
While the science of marijuana for use in pain relief is still new and evolving. Historically, marijuana was safely used as medicine for several millennia, with the earliest use for pain predating recorded history. (Note to research enthusiasts: you can find a fascinating historical timeline of the cultures and different civilizations using marijuana for medical purposes here.)
Many researchers have studied the effects of cannabis and cannabinoids on pain. Studies show that the THC cannabinoid in marijuana, opiates, and other common pain medications all function similarly. The compounds help to relieve pain by interacting with the body’s natural cannabinoid receptors to reduce pain signaling and pain perception in the brain. However, there is a key difference between the medical benefits of cannabis and traditional prescription pain medications worth considering.
The opioid compounds found in many commonly prescribed pain meds also interact with parts of the brainstem that control breathing. THC does not affect this part of the brain, so it presents fewer risks than those associated with using prescription pain medications. Long-term use can raise tolerance levels, meaning higher dosages will be necessary to achieve the same effects, making overdosing a significant danger with traditional prescription pain medications. In 2019, nearly 50,000 people died from overdoses involving commonly prescribed pain medications like prescription pain relievers, as well as heroin, and synthetic opioids such as fentanyl. Several studies show that cannabis is less likely to be abused than opioids and other drugs, which is why so many states nationwide have some form of medical cannabis program.
All medications have some side effects. However, some can cause more harm than others, especially opioids and other pain medications. Prescription pain medications often cause constipation, nausea, slowed metabolism, and can cause debilitating withdrawal symptoms that can even lead to death. In contrast, for some people, medical cannabis may also produce side effects. Most are manageable with a simple dosage adjustment, and cannabis will not cause long-term damage to the body. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for prescription pain medications.
Medical cannabis is safer, less addictive, and with fewer hazardous side effects. Studies also show that in states with medical marijuana programs experience decreases in daily opioid doses—particularly hydrocodone and morphine prescriptions. Finally, unlike opiates and other drugs, which have caused tens of thousands of deaths in recent years, there has never been a recorded death due to cannabis overdose.
What Does Marijuana Treat?
Medical marijuana provides a safe and effective alternative to some traditional pharmaceutical drugs in managing pain associated with several serious health conditions such as cancer, multiple sclerosis, Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis, persistent and debilitating muscle spasms, as well as for patients with terminal illnesses with a life expectancy of less than six months, or other terminal conditions requiring hospice for end-of-life care.
Patients with qualifying conditions* should consult with their Qualified Medical Provider about whether the medical benefits of cannabis can be beneficial for use in their treatment protocol.
*For a complete list of qualifying conditions approved for medical cannabis, click here, then scroll to question nine.
Want to stay on top of the latest cannabis research for medical purposes? The UCI Center for the Study of Cannabis publishes regular studies on medical cannabis and its uses for different conditions.