Medical cannabis reduces pain and need for opioid painkillers in cancer patients

A comprehensive evaluation of the benefits of medical cannabis for cancer-related pain found that for most oncology patients, pain measures improved significantly, other cancer-related symptoms also decreased, pain medication use was reduced and side effects were minimal. Posted in Frontiers of pain researchthese results suggest that medical cannabis can be carefully considered as an alternative to pain medications that are commonly prescribed to cancer patients.

Pain, along with depression, anxiety, and insomnia, are among the most fundamental causes of disability and suffering for oncology patients while undergoing treatment, and can even lead to worsening of prognosis.

“Traditionally, cancer pain is primarily treated with opioid painkillers, but most oncologists perceive opioid treatment as dangerous, so alternative therapies are needed,” explained author David Meiri, assistant professor at Technion Israel. Institute of Technology.

“Our study is the first to assess the possible benefits of medical cannabis for cancer-related pain in oncology patients; collect information from the start of treatment, and with repeated follow-ups over an extended period, to obtain an in-depth analysis of its effectiveness.

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Need for alternative treatment

After talking to several cancer patients, who were looking for alternative options to relieve pain and symptoms, the researchers were keen to thoroughly test the potential benefits of medical cannabis.

“We have met many cancer patients who have asked us if medical cannabis treatment could benefit their health,” said co-author Gil Bar-Sela, associate professor at Ha’Emek Medical Center Afula. “Our initial review of existing research found that in fact, not much was known about its effectiveness, particularly for the treatment of cancer-related pain, and from what was known, most results were inconclusive.”

The researchers recruited board-certified oncologists who could license medical cannabis to their cancer patients. These oncologists referred interested patients to the study and reported on the characteristics of their disease.

“Patients completed anonymous questionnaires before starting treatment and then repeatedly over the following six months. We collected data on a number of factors, including pain measures, pain medication consumption, cancer symptom burden, sexual problems and side effects,” Bar-Sela said.

Improved symptoms

An analysis of the data revealed that many of the outcome measures improved, with less pain and cancer symptoms. Importantly, the use of opioids and other pain relievers has decreased. In fact, almost half of the patients studied stopped all pain medications after six months of medicinal cannabis treatment.

“Medical cannabis has been suggested as a possible remedy for loss of appetite, however, most patients in this study still lost weight. As a significant portion were diagnosed with progressive cancer, weight loss is expected with disease progression,” Meiri said.

He continued: “Interestingly, we found that sexual function improved for most men but worsened for most women.”

Meiri would like future studies to dig deeper and examine the effectiveness of medicinal cannabis in different groups of cancer patients.

“While our study was very comprehensive and presented additional insights into medical cannabis, gender, age and ethnicity, as well as cancer types and cancer stage meant that the variety of patients in our study was large, therefore future studies should investigate the level of efficacy of medical cannabis in specific subgroups of cancer patients with more common characteristics.

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