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Marijuana and Pain, Christmas or Bah Humbug?

Marijuana and Pain, Christmas or Bah Humbug?

The results of the latest study on marijuana (cannabis) and pain from researchers at Oxford University present a mixed message. So are the findings a reason for celebration (Merry Christmas!) or simply a case of bah humbug?

Does marijuana relieve pain?

It seems there’s no end to the debates and controversies surrounding marijuana: Should we legalize it or not? Does it cause brain damage or not? Is it helpful for people with type 2 diabetes, multiple sclerosis, bipolar disorder, and other medical conditions or not? Can it relieve pain or not?

A number of previous studies have demonstrated that use of cannabis is effective in relieving pain associated with neuropathy, surgery, and cancer. One study even indicated marijuana use may be helpful in people who suffer with inflammatory bowel disease.

The importance of this latest study, as stated by its head researcher, Dr. Michael Lee, is that it reveals “new information about the neural basis of cannabis-induced pain relief.” To get this information, the investigators used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to examine the brains of 12 healthy male volunteers before and after they took tablets containing 15 mg of THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), the main psychoactive component found in cannabis, or placebo, and before and after being subjected to a pain-induced topical cream or a placebo cream.

Based on the fMRI scans, the researchers determined that use of cannabis (or more accurately, THC) affects how people respond emotionally to pain rather than have an impact on the severity of physical pain itself. So is this finding a positive one regarding marijuana use for medical reasons or cause for a “bah humbug” response?

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There are several reasons not to pack away the idea of marijuana use for medical reasons along with the Christmas decorations right after the holidays. One is that research has demonstrated that some people who have not responded to conventional drugs do experience significant pain relief when using marijuana.

Therefore, just like certain drugs work for some patients and not for others, the same appears to be true for marijuana. Another reason to continue consideration of cannabis for pain relief is that new findings, such as those in this Oxford study, expand our understanding of how marijuana and its many components can be beneficial in particular situations and for some patients, and so additional research is warranted.

In fact, the study’s authors noted that brain scans may help clinicians identify which patients may benefit from using marijuana for pain relief.

As Dr. Lee explained, “the findings are of interest scientifically but it remains to see how they impact the debate about use of cannabis-based medicines,” while he also stressed the need for “studies in patients with chronic pain over longer time periods.” So the potential of marijuana use for pain relief is still alive and relatively well this Christmas season.

Oxford University

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