Brain and Body

Smoking Marijuana May Be the Solution to the Painkiller Epidemic, Research Suggests

March 29, 2016 | Kelly Tatera

Marijuana in a glass pipe

Patients who use medical marijuana for chronic pain report a 64 percent decrease in painkiller use.

The prescription painkiller epidemic is a problem on the rise in the United States. According to the National Institute of Drug Abuse, the US constitutes 5 percent of the world’s population but consumes a whopping 75 percent of the world’s prescription drugs!

Further, it’s estimated that about 2.1 million people suffer from substance abuse disorders related to prescription opioids in the US alone, and a recent study found that 10 percent of prescribers dish out 57 percent of opioid prescriptions — hinting at a large systemic problem.

Could medical marijuana be the solution to the problem?

Researchers at the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health seem to think it’s a definite possibility.

SEE ALSO: Can Pain Kill You?

In a study of 185 patients from a medical marijuana dispensary in Ann Arbor, Michigan, the participants showed fewer side effects from their medications and reported a 45-percent improvement in their quality of life since using cannabis to manage their pain.

Further, patients who use marijuana to control chronic pain report an impressive 64 percent decrease in their use of traditional prescription pain medications like opioids.

At a time when national health leaders are asking doctors to cut back on prescribing drugs like OxyContin and Vicodin, these findings hint that medical marijuana could serve as an effective alternative — at least for some people.

“We’re in the midst of an opioid epidemic and we need to figure out what to do about it,” lead author Kevin Boehnke, a doctoral student in the School of Public Health’s Department of Environmental Health Sciences, said in a press release. “I’m hoping our research continues a conversation of cannabis as a potential alternative for opioids.”

With surveys conducted from November 2013 to February 2015, the researchers had originally set out to find if smoking marijuana was more effective for people with severe centralized chronic pain, since opioids haven’t always proven to work out for those cases.

"We hypothesized that cannabis might be particularly effective for the type of pain seen in conditions such as fibromyalgia, since there are many studies suggesting that synthetic cannabinoids work in these conditions," said study senior author Dr. Daniel Clauw, professor of pain management anesthesiology at the U-M Medical School. "We did not see this because the patients in this study rated cannabis to be equally effective for those with different pain severity."

Instead, the researchers observed that it was the patients with less severe chronic pain who reported a reduced use of painkillers and a better quality of life. The results are published in the Journal of Pain.

The researchers did note an important limitation to the study — since it was conducted with people at a marijuana dispensary, the patients are presumed to be believers in the medical benefits of marijuana. Plus, the patients were surveyed after they’d been using marijuana, which could decrease the accuracy of their recollections.

SEE ALSO: New Drug Is as Strong as Morphine, but Without Risk of Addiction

However, in states where medical cannabis is legal — 23 states and the District of Columbia — population level research has shown a reduction in opioid use, according to the press release.

Just this month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released 12 recommended guidelines for prescribing opioids, and noted that prescriptions have quadrupled since 1999, with 40 people dying each day from an overdose of these drugs.

"We are learning that the higher the dose of opioids people are taking, the higher the risk of death from overdose,” said Clauw. “This magnitude of reduction in our study is significant enough to affect an individual's risk of accidental death from overdose.”

While the potential to use medical marijuana as an alternative to addictive prescription painkillers seems promising, the researchers warn that a transition like this must not be rushed.

"We would caution against rushing to change current clinical practice towards cannabis,” Boehnke said, “but note that this study suggests that cannabis is an effective pain medication and agent to prevent opioid overuse.”

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