Cannabis and Pain

Pain is second only to severe joint damage as the most devastating symptom of rheumatoid disease. But unlike joint damage, joint pain is something that everyone who has the disease experiences.

Pain is a feeling. This can be a problem when it comes to relieving rheumatoid disease symptoms. A damaged joint is tangible. An x-ray or MRI will show and prove it. Sometimes, you can even see the damage beneath the skin; the joint is obviously deformed and distorted. It doesn’t look “normal” anymore.

But you can’t see pain. It doesn’t show up on an x-ray or MRI. It’s invisible, even though it may be so huge that the person who’s experiencing it can’t think of anything else; so overwhelming that all she can do is gaze into the middle distance, moan, and rock. Whether it’s minor or severe, pain is terribly hard to quantify. For many people with rheumatoid disease, the only real (although temporary) relief from the frequent, often unrelenting pain it causes comes from prescription opioid analgesics like Vicodin, Norco, or Percocet.

Doctors have become more sensitive about treating pain as more than a transient annoyance, and they’ve started prescribing opioids more frequently over the last 30 years. And of course, the opportunities to abuse these drugs grew as well. Since 1990 the number of drug overdose deaths in the U.S. have tripled. The majority of those deaths were from prescription drugs, and the majority of those were opioid painkillers. These drugs are dangerous–even deadly–when not taken as prescribed and with an abundance of care.

Of course, there is one possible solution to the problem of illegal prescription drug abuse: marijuana, or cannabis, a name that has fewer sharp, controversial thorns sticking out of it.

I’m a boomer. Back in my young adult hippie days, I smoked weed–and it wasn’t for pain relief, either, although I was never a stoner. But then I grew up. I got a real job with real responsibilities, I got married, had a beautiful little girl, and I just didn’t have the time or the inclination to use recreational cannabis anymore. In addition, buying, selling, possessing, and using it was illegal, a fact that was far more important to me as a young mother and a professional woman with a career that was just beginning to take off than it was when I was younger.

But I cheered when first one state, then another, started legalizing marijuana for medical use. At first I was like most people: I said “Right … medical use …!” and I’d snort and roll my eyes because I’d never heard of such a thing and we all knew what “medical” use meant. You smoked marijuana to get high, that’s all.

But I was wrong. We all were. Anecdotal evidence says that marijuana–cannabis–has properties that can relieve nausea in cancer patients and in other chronic sufferers. It may reduce the pressure in the eyes of glaucoma patients, or calm the anxiety of someone with Alzheimer’s disease. It can relieve neuropathic and trigeminal pain, relieve the pain of osteo– and rheumatoid arthritis, and reduce epileptic seizures–among many other things. And it does all this safely. You can’t overdose on weed.

Imagine! Cannabis may safely relieve the pain caused by rheumatoid arthritis! No more dangerous opioid painkillers! Full disclosure: I’ve tried cannabis with a doctor’s prescription. For me, it didn’t work very well, but it’s smart to keep in mind that there are many different strains and strengths of this versatile plant. The one I tried may not have been the best for my RD pain—and as we all know, everyone’s RD is a little different from the next person’s. What works for me might not work for you, and vice-versa. The strain of cannabis I tried also made me too high—not something I wanted—so if I used it, I needed to wait until I had no other responsibilities pending. Since I’m my mother’s caregiver, this didn’t leave much opportunity for self-medication.

My prescription ran out after a year, so I need a get another before I can try again. But I do plan to. I’ll try a different strain and ask about its “euphoric” qualities. I’d much rather use cannabis than hydrocodone if I can.

Twenty-three states have now made medical cannabis legal to grow in small quantities, sell under state license, and use to relieve or treat a medical condition, all with a legitimate prescription from a doctor. Eleven others have legislation pending. But the Federal Drug Administration hasn’t changed with the times, and marijuana is still considered an illegal, Schedule I controlled substance, considered as dangerous as heroin and LSD. And because it’s illegal, researchers and scientists have been unable to carry out many of the kinds of large, methodical studies and rigorous testing that might prove cannabis’s beneficial, benign use as a safe alternative to opioids for pain relief, etc. Such studies would take cannabis’s medical benefits out of the range of anecdote and into the range of fact.

Harvard Medical School’s Emeritus Professor of Psychiatry, Lester Grinspoon, MD, wrote in a March 1, 2007 editorial in the Boston Globe that “While few such studies have so far been completed, all have lent weight to what medicine already knew but had largely forgotten or ignored: Marijuana is effective at relieving nausea and vomiting, spasticity, appetite loss, certain types of pain, and other debilitating symptoms. And it is extraordinarily safe — safer than most medicines prescribed every day. If marijuana were a new discovery rather than a well-known substance carrying cultural and political baggage, it would be hailed as a wonder drug.”

The US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy recently spoke about marijuana’s potential benefits, saying: “We have some preliminary data showing that for certain medical conditions and symptoms, marijuana can be helpful.”

Hear, hear!

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The RheumatoidArthritis.net team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.
View References
  1. Policy Impact: Prescription Painkiller Overdoses. (2013, July 2) Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved on March 28, 2015 from http://www.cdc.gov/homeandrecreationalsafety/rxbrief/
  2. Ebeling, Paul. Medical Marijuana, a Pain Relief Option. (2015, 23 March) News360.com. Retrieved on March 28, 2015 from http://news360.com/article/284228705
  3. For Which Conditions and Symptoms Might Medical Marijuana Provide Relief? (2001, Nov.) ProCon.org. Retrieved on March 26, 2015 from http://medicalmarijuana.procon.org/view.answers.php?questionID=000087

Comments

View Comments (6)
  • Kathy P.
    4 years ago

    Wren, thanks so much for writing about this. I feel that it’s one option that needs to be explored, but unfortunately, can’t because of the classification of it being a Schedule I drug. I will forewarn everyone that this is a long post.

    I’m a little paranoid writing about my experiences I’ve recently had, although I have to say that I’ve not broken the “law.” I don’t live where there is medical use, but I live close to a state that has both medical and recreational use. So, I’ve been going to that state to try different types of MJ to see if there was any validity to the claims, because I am desperate.

    The opioids don’t work as well as people think. By the time you get enough to knock down the pain, you’re so high and lethargic you can’t do any work, and in my work it is actually dangerous. In addition, I had a parent was an alcoholic and a narcotic addict, so I’m really leery of becoming addicted myself, especially at the doses I’m supposed to be taking. Much of my day is spent managing the pain, and even with current rheumatoid arthritis medications, all I can hope for is a modicum of relief and perhaps less deformities. I’m one of those people where it has to be proven to me personally that something works.

    On to my experiences so far: I’ve tried sub-lingual, joints, patch, and vaping oils. BTW, you can get CBD sub-lingual oil without any THC in it, and it’s legal in all 50 states, and for some people it helps considerably, with some getting some relief, but for some it has no effect.

    All of the strains I tried were high in CBD and low in THC, although the sub-lingual with CBD alone only provided minimal relief. The sub-lingual with both CBD and THC did much more, and the effect of THC left me relaxed but not giggly euphoric. The patch did absolutely nothing for me, and there was no euphoria with it. The joints trashed my throat, but they were very effective for the pain, but they also made me very high. I’m not doing this for the euphoric feeling, and this was more than I was comfortable.

    However, the vaping pen was a whole different experience. The nice thing about an establishment that sells both medical and recreational is that you have staff that is knowledgeable about the various strains, so I’ve been able to talk to them about what I have tried so far and the results. I was told this last time to try the type of oil in a vaping pen that is an indica strain rather than the sativa strain, because sativa is higher in THC and makes you more euphoric.

    I chose one of the indica strains. Vaping pens are much kinder on the throat, and the effect is quick, much more so than edibles. It also has no smell and a little goes a long way since it is only consumed if you draw on the pen, and with no fear of fire.

    My result with the pen was fabulous. I had almost complete relief from the pain. I was able to walk with very little pain and without my cane. I only had the tiniest bit of euphoria, but it wasn’t evident to my family at all, even though they knew I was trying MJ.

    What surprised me most was the reduction of the swelling. My knees didn’t look like I had a couple of water balloons stuffed under my kneecaps, I had ankles again, my one foot that is really bad had toes again, instead of looking like little fat sausages stuck onto a loaf of bread, and my one hand that is really bad, had the swelling reduced by at least half and I was able to close my fingers most of the way.

    I had several days of using the pen, and the effect lasted for several days afterwards. It was really hard to go back to the intense pain and swelling after having such dramatic relief.

    I’m seriously considering moving to a state that has medical MJ, because it’s my understanding that the inflammation is what causes both the pain and the destruction of the joints. Moving would be a significant financial investment, which at this stage of my life is a problem. On the other hand, the relief was so tremendous, I have hope of being able to do things physically I can no longer due to the limitations imposed by both pain and deformities. But I wouldn’t have to be playing medical roulette with drugs that have bad side effects, depress my immune system (I’ve already had a bout of cellulitis that took 5 months to clear up), worry about drug addiction, and putting up with steroids that also have serious side effects that have undesirable impacts on my health as well.

    I’m sorry this post is so long, but I think if you have the opportunity to try MJ, you should seriously consider it, and have someone else drive you so you don’t have to worry about being under the influence of a drug that you don’t know how you’ll react. Apparently its effect is different for each person. There is a caution here though: Try to get it from a dispensary, because with the street drug you have to worry about adulteration and the purpose of it is to specifically to get high.

  • Wren moderator author
    4 years ago

    Hi, Kathy!
    Wow! What a terrific comment! Sure, it’s long, but it’s packed with excellent, first-hand knowledge of the subject. Besides, there’s no length-limit here. I’m delighted that you decided to enter the conversation.

    All that said, I’m happy for you that cannabis works so well to ease your pain. And I’m both happy and surprised that it also relieved much of your RD’s swelling (and perhaps inflammation). It gives me much hope for the future to know that this natural therapy can offer so much relief.

    While only two states have legalized cannabis so far, I believe that there are several others with legislation opting for legalization in the works. California, where I live, is one. And of course, many states have already legalized it for medical use. What a shame that yours isn’t one of them and that you have to travel in order to get relief from your pain. I can certainly understand your desire to move–and how difficult it is to actually do that.

    Here’s hoping using cannabis to treat RD pain becomes legal and easy in more states as soon as possible. And thank you so much, Kathy, for sharing your experiences and knowledge. I hope we’ll hear from you again soon! 😀

  • rhonda
    4 years ago

    Wren, thanks for writing on this subject. I have had family and friends ask me if this is something I thought would help my pain. I would be open to trying cannabis for my pain if it could be given in a form that would not make me feel like I was too high. I think cannabis has a stigma that many people can’t get passed. I think you are rite, if cannabis was discovered today it would be the miracle drug. I currently take tramadol for my pain it doesn’t work great but I am fearful to take the stronger pain meds. I know at some point I will have to take them but if we at least had the choice to try cannabis in the state we live in that would be nice. Some say the drug company’s are against cannabis because there is no money in it. I say whatever can improve some ones quality of life is worth a try. You are a kind daughter to care for your mother. I work in a long term care facility and it is sad how lonely my patients are and how in frequently they have visitors. I hope the kindness you show your mother will creep into your sore joints and soothe them. Happy thoughts 🙂

  • Wren moderator author
    4 years ago

    Hi, Rhonda!
    Thanks so much for your kind words. 🙂 If your state permits medical cannabis use, when you go to a retail seller, ask for a strain that works best for pain w/o the intense high–and then buy just a very small amount to try. If it works for you, get more.

    I’m guessing that all strains may cause some degree of euphoria, but like you, I’d prefer one that will allow me to continue to function as normally as possible.

    Also, keep in mind that the opioid drugs, while potentially problematic, are safe when used exactly as prescribed. Talk to your doctor about your concerns. It’s just not fun–or healthy, frankly–to be in awful pain all the time. You can always reserve those types of painkillers for really bad flares.

    Wishing you the best. And thanks for stopping by and commenting. I’d love to hear from you again about how you’re doing, and whether you decided to try cannabis. :oD

  • Polly
    4 years ago

    Hi Wren, Interesting stuff, not something I know anything about really, not even ‘recreationally’, but especially interesting about the different strengths and strains – suggesting there’s a lot of work yet to be done, if researchers can get permission to do it!

  • Wren moderator author
    4 years ago

    Hi, Polly!
    You’ve touched on the crux of the problem with cannabis, I think. We’ve all kinds of anecdotal evidence (people saying it works for them), but very little credible, peer-reviewed scientific research to give it a good, solid base to make its use a reality for more chronic pain patients. The good news? The more states that legalize cannabis for medical use–or legalize it, period, for all uses–the more likely these studies will get done. And eventually, I believe the positive changes made in the states will finally change how the Federal government regulates it. Achy fingers crossed it all happens sooner than later.

    Thanks so much for taking the time to comment. It’s so good to hear from you!

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