As an orthopedist, I see many patients with the joint pain, stiffness, and decreased mobility of arthritis. I’ve also seen the depression and frustration of the limitations that arthritis can put on your life. For this reason, many people have chosen to use marijuana for their symptoms instead of taking prescription arthritis drugs, or pain pills, that can have serious side effects. Now, I don’t advocate anyone taking, or buying, illegal drugs, but marijuana has some distinct advantages for arthritis sufferers…
Marijuana: A Natural Pain Reliever, Anti-Inflammatory
People who use marijuana have reported how well it works to relieve their arthritis symptoms. They report that it eases their pain and stiffness and allows them to get moving. It also relaxes them overall and allows them to sleep better.
Although there has only been about 100 studies done on marijuana from 1990 through the present, those that have been done have shown positive improvements in arthritis, as well as other pain symptoms. That’s not surprising to me. The active ingredient in marijuana, THC, is one of the best natural antioxidants, anti-inflammatories around. It also has strong antibiotic properties as well. This makes marijuana uniquely qualified to address the inflammation and pain of arthritis as well as swelling around the joints that occurs.
Yet, experts are quick to point out the possible risks and adverse side effects of using marijuana to treat any health condition. These include:
- Respiratory problems
- Short term memory and psychomotor function impairment
- Heart disease
- IQ drop
- Addiction – vulnerability to other drugs
- Impaired driving
Anecdotal “evidence”, though, from people who use marijuana regularly, as well as the results of the studies that have been done, points to more pain-relief benefits that have become over-shadowed by possible side effects.
For example, one study showed that 80% of medical marijuana users from a particular U.S. pain clinic used it to (successfully) treat chronic pain of muscles and ligaments. Similarly, a Canadian study revealed that 65% of medical marijuana users used it to relieve arthritis symptoms. People who use medical marijuana for pain relief of arthritis report having their pain scale lower from a 10 to a 5-6, cutting their pain in half as well as improving their mobility. It has allowed them to live a more productive life, even keep working.
A study out of the University of Toronto from 2010, looked at how cannabis (either smoked or in tincture of concentrated THC) affected neuropathic pain. This is pain that occurs with nerve damage and is common to type 1 diabetes. Out of the trials, 15 of them revealed that the cannabis-treated participants had better relief of pain than placebo.
With all these users citing symptomatic relief from pain, medical marijuana is still, mostly illegal in the United States. And in those states where it is legal, many doctors still hesitate to prescribe it for their patients suffering from chronic pain issues from any condition. Some cite the possible addiction concern or the fact that there are too few studies on the product’s benefits and safety.
However, known addictive pain drugs, like opiates, are routinely prescribed by doctors for their patients’ chronic pain issues. Drug addiction specialists have pointed out that medical marijuana may be no more addicting than readily-given, FDA approved drugs. In addition, out of the 28 million people who try marijuana annually, only 6-8% of them exhibit drug-seeking behavior. There have also been many overdose deaths from these widely prescribed pain-relieving drugs. In contrast, no overdose deaths from marijuana have been reported to date.
How You Take Medical Marijuana May Diminish Risk
Like any drug, there can be some associated side effects. Interestingly, the serious side effects of FDA approved arthritis drugs (like Celebrex and other NSAIDs) have been well-documented. Yet, they’re still legal, still being prescribed, and many are still available over-the-counter today.
But with medical marijuana, the way you use it may also increase/decrease your risk for certain side effects. For example, using marijuana in the traditional way, i.e., smoking it, increases your risk for cardiorespiratory events. Smoking rapidly delivers the THC content directly to your blood stream. Studies out of the National Institute on Drug Abuse have shown that smoking marijuana, like cigarettes, raises your heart rate.
Another study reported that smoking marijuana raised your risk of heart attack five-fold in the first hour after smoking and trailed off after 3 hours. Marijuana, like tobacco, also contains carcinogens – in fact, 50 to 70% more than tobacco. Yet, no studies have linked marijuana use to lung or upper respiratory cancer like tobacco.
Marijuana added into edible foods like cookies, muffins, candy bars through tinctures of its concentrated THC; drinking it as a tea; or vaporizing it and inhaling don’t have the same smoke-related cardiorespiratory side effects. This is because the THC content has to go through your digestive system which slows down the release of the THC to your bloodstream.
That said, packaging of many THC containing food products in states where medical marijuana is legal, haven’t yet made clear what an average “serving size” is. And, since there is no real regulation of these products as of yet, some products may contain higher doses of THC.
Some people have reported unwell feelings from eating too much of a THC-containing product at one time. But, according to CW Analytical Labs in California, 90% of these products on the market are safe. It’s also important to note that, according to the FDA’s report through 2005, 0 deaths have been directly attributed directly to marijuana, and 1 indirectly related.
Today, there are 24 states, including Washington D.C., where medical marijuana is legal and you can get a prescription from a doctor to use it. Because of its anti-inflammatory, pain-relieving effects, medical marijuana could go a long way in helping with the chronic, often debilitating pain and stiffness of common arthritis as well as rheumatoid arthritis. For many arthritis patients, prescription arthritis drugs may interfere with other health conditions they have and medical marijuana could be a viable alternative.
If you suffer from either form of arthritis and live in a state where medical marijuana is legal, ask your doctor for a prescription to try it and see how it works for you. If your doctor categorically refuses to give you the prescription, you may want to seek a second opinion on the subject. Some doctors are just not aware of the many medical benefits of marijuana in treating chronic pain like that associated with arthritis.
Mark Bromson, M.D.
Pros and Cons of Marijuana for Joint Pain, http://www.everydayhealth.com/news/pros-and-cons-of-marijuana-for-joint-pain/
Can Medical Marijuana Help Rheumatoid Arthritis?, http://healthyliving.msn.com/diseases/rheumatoid-arthritis/can-medical-marijuana-help-rheumatoid-arthritis-1