Minnesota Study Finds Medical Marijuana May be Key to Reducing Opioid Use

In a recent study, medical marijuana significantly eased patients' intractable pain and reduced the patients' need to take opioids to manage their pain, according to the findings of the Minnesota Department of Health.

In 2016, the Minnesota Department of Health invited newly-enrolled medical cannabis patients to report their experiences with intractable pain. The results of this first-of-its-kind research program have been released this month, and they're eye-opening.

No less than 42 percent of patients reported the use of medical cannabis led to a pain reduction of 30 percent – the threshold taken in pain studies to mean clinically significant improvement – or higher. And even more telling was the effect of cannabis on prescription painkiller use.

For intractable pain (unlike the more common chronic pain), an unrelenting, excruciating, and incurable feeling that can leave sufferers bed- or house-bound, opioids can be the only medications that provide relief. But pain researchers are worried that opioid relief for untreated pain may be just as bad as the condition itself, with both potentially leading to an untimely death. Here’s a bit about the study and what it means for America’s deadliest addiction.

The Turning Point for Pain and Dependence

The study was based on the treatment of 2,245 patients enrolled in Minnesota’s medical cannabis program for intractable pain between August and December 2016. Within that observation period, 2,174 of the enrollees purchased cannabis and, before each purchase, completed a self-evaluation.

This PEG (pain, enjoyment, and general activity) evaluation measured levels of pain and their effect on patients’ enjoyment of life and day-to-day activity on a scale of zero to 10, zero being no pain and 10 the highest. According to the survey, 42 percent of patients with moderate to severe pain levels before cannabis use achieved the 30 percent pain reduction, and 22 percent maintained this reduction over four months. As well as evaluating themselves, patients saw healthcare practitioners who reported similar numbers.

Participants’ pain relief had an array of secondary benefits in some cases, including improved sleep, decreased anxiety, improved mobility, and decreased side effects from other pain medications. And for the 353 patients who reported taking opioids, 63 percent said they reduced or eliminated opioid use after six months of taking medical cannabis.

Medical Marijuana as an Alternative to Opioids

The medical community is pretty much united in the belief that intractable pain management treatments are inadequate, at best. Other pain treatments appropriate for the patient have resulted in side effects that are outright harmful.

While opioid medication is one treatment recognized by the American Academy of Pain Medicine as appropriate and legitimate, the risks, most notably addiction, are undeniable. In the U.S., opioid addiction is the main driver of overdose deaths, which increased five-fold between 1999 and 2016.

In the medical cannabis study, side effects affected about 40 percent of participants – 90 percent of whom described the effects as mild to moderate. The most common were dry mouth, drowsiness, and fatigue. Fifty-five patients reported adverse side effects that interrupted their day-to-day activities. No life-threatening adverse events, or incidents requiring hospitalization, were reported at all.

In view of the opioid epidemic’s “national emergency” status, researchers have set out to find treatments that can minimize its risks, including alternative (and ideally, risk-free) medicines that help cut opioid dosage. Researchers caution that further, more rigorous research is needed to be sure of medical cannabis’s potential in this. But for now, the evidence is promising – both for pain management and opioid dependence.

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