Article written by
Tina MagrabiSenior Content Writer
Content reviewed by
Dr. Lewis JasseyMedical Director - Pediatric Medicine
Table of contents
According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, more than 20 million Americans have been estimated to have some form of nerve pain. Many experts, however, think that number is even higher. Nerve pain is also often called “neuropathy” or “peripheral neuropathy“, which refers to damage or dysfunction of one or more nerves, typically resulting in numbness, tingling, muscle weakness and pain in the affected area. Due to neuropathy coming in many different shapes and forms, on top of nerve pain itself often being misdiagnosed due to its complex array of symptoms, those suffering from it often can’t find consistent relief. Medical cannabis could perhaps provide this consistent relief.
Unfortunately for many, the lack of reliable relief and lack of legal access to medical marijuana leads to the traditional medical establishment prescribing them addictive pharmaceuticals, sometimes including opioids, further exacerbating and adding to the millions of Americans who misuse opioids. The most common drugs prescribed for nerve pain are pregabalin (Lyrica) & gabapentin (Neurontin), amitriptyline (a tricyclic antidepressant) and duloxetine (an antidepressant that affects serotonin and norepinephrine). Although these drugs aren’t necessarily as narcotic as opioids, they can still have negative side-effects like addiction, headaches, dizziness, nausea/vomiting and weight/appetite loss. Cannabis can help replace or reduce the need for such medications.
So naturally, many suffering from neuropathy are looking for a more natural way of treating their pain without the many downsides that come with pharmaceutical painkillers. That’s why so many have turned to medical cannabis to deal with their nerve pain – it manages to help beat several other types of pain at once without the need to take several different pills, and there are few pain medications available that are useful for neuropathic pain.
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Medical Cannabis for Treating Chronic Pain
So what exactly makes cannabis so effective as an option for treating neuropathy? To put it as simply as possible, it’s about the way the cannabis you’re using interacts with the endocannabinoid system (ECS) and the impact it can have on damaged nerves and pain generally.
So what does the science say about the impact of cannabinoids like tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) on chronic pain? Unfortunately, due to the ongoing and outdated Reefer Madness-era prohibition of cannabis in the U.S., we don’t have a huge body of research into understanding exactly how and why THC is so effective at treating and soothing nerve pain. The research we do have, however, shows that the links between THC and relief from neuropathy are real and significant. We also know that cannabinoids can be used to treat conditions and symptoms that often accompany neuropathic pain, like headaches/migraines, spasms, stiffness and diabetes.
One study from 2013 that was published in The Journal of Pain showed that even a low dose, vaporized cannabis significantly reduced neuropathic pain. Another follow-up study showed that patients suffering from nerve pain associated with HIV found at least a 30 percent reduction in pain compared to those taking a placebo. More recent studies back up these earlier findings as well.
Another study found that neuropathy patients treated with a THC/CBD nasal spray reported significantly improved levels of pain, sleep quality, and an improved Subject Global Impression of Change (SGIC) regarding the severity of their conditions – a result that is likely due to the entourage effect. For those suffering from chronic pain or neuropathy, a 30 percent reduction in the suffering they’re dealing with can make a world of difference.
On top of that direct research into the ways THC can impact neuropathy directly, some research has been done into the impact of THC on pain in general and found promising results.
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So How Exactly Does Medical Cannabis Help Treat Nerve Pain?
So now that we know that research suggests that medical cannabis can help those dealing with neuropathy, let’s talk about how exactly it does so scientifically. Like we mentioned earlier in this article, the answer lies in the interactions between the compounds in the medical cannabis you’re using and the endocannabinoid system itself.
Since neuropathy is most often a result of some type of direct or indirect injury or damage to the nerve itself, neurons tend to become more reactive and responsive to stimulations. That’s what causes the tell-tale tingling, stabbing, shooting, and burning sensations often associated with neuropathy.
The compounds in medical cannabis, most notably cannabidiol (CBD) and THC, have been shown to reduce those reactions and help regulate neurotransmitters and the central nervous system via the endocannabinoid system, which helps soothe and reduce pain. THC and CBD also activate the CB1 and CB2 receptors and help regulate neurotransmitters and the central nervous system, helping to reduce pain. Research has also shown medical cannabis plays a role in the endorphin system and can reduce a patient’s perception of pain, making symptoms feel less intense and easier to deal with. THC, which mimics the natural endocannabinoid anandamide, reduces levels of the enzyme fatty acid amide hydrolase (FAAH), increasing anandamide levels in the body, also decreasing (or distracting from) pain perception.
Which Cannabinoids Can Help Treat Neuropathic Pain?
We’ve mentioned THC and CBD briefly above, but to give a little more detail:
- THC can act as an analgesic painkiller, helping numb or distract from nerve pain. THC interacts with both CB1 and CB2 receptors, helping reduce inflammation.
- CBD works on several different receptors at once, but not necessarily directly with the cannabinoid receptors CB1 and CB2. CBD acts on serotonin to improve the mood, as a negative allosteric modulator of CB1 receptors and opioid receptors, helping turn down pain signals’ volume (on top of reducing THC’s psychoactivity), and vanilloid receptors, also helping reduce pain and inflammation.
- Tetrahydrocannabivarin (THCV) could be very helpful in the treatment of nerve pain associated with diabetes and Alzheimer’s.
- Cannabigerol (CBG) could help treat chronic nerve pain, and could help rebuild or regenerate old or dead nerve and brain cells!
Medical Marijuana for Nerve Pain: the Bottom Line
While there needs to be more comprehensive, long-term research done to say so beyond a doubt, early research clearly shows that medical cannabis can play a significant role in treating and reducing the pain associated with neuropathy. On top of that, research shows that medical cannabis as a form of pain treatment is just as effective and far less addictive than the standard doctor-prescribed opioids, sedatives and gabapentinoids, and can be an excellent way to reduce the need for other drugs like antidepressants and gabapentin as well.
As more and more states modernize their views on cannabis and create medical programs of their own, more patients will be able to have consistent and reliable access to natural medicine that can help ease their suffering without the risk of addiction and overdose associated with other forms of pain treatment.
For patients dealing with nerve pain, medical cannabis might be the best – and possibly safest – way to go!
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