Chronic Pain Patients Are Using Cannabis, But Its Health Benefits Remain Unclear

Patients with chronic pain are more likely to use cannabis multiple times a day. However, whether cannabis is associated with better health in this population is unclear, according to a report.

“It’s not clear if marijuana is helping or not,” said study author Bridget Freisthler, PhD, a professor of social work at The Ohio State University, in a press release. “The benefits aren’t as clear-cut as some people assume.”

Dr. Freisthler and the other authors explained in their study, which was published in the International Journal of Drug Policy, “Pain is the most common reason endorsed by patients seeking medical cannabis. Given the nature of chronic pain, it is particularly important to understand consumption patterns for patients who use cannabis for chronic health conditions to evaluate how frequency of use might impact overall health and functioning.”

This study included 295 patients taking medical cannabis. Pain levels were stratified as low, moderate, and high; cannabis consumption was categorized as daily versus nondaily, and ≥3 times per day versus <3 times per day. The researchers used logistic regression analysis to determine the association between pain and cannabis consumption and two ordered logit models to assess the association between past-year health status change (better, same, or worse) and cannabis consumption.

Patients with higher levels of pain were much more likely to use cannabis three or more times per day than patients with lower pain levels. While pain level was not largely correlated with daily cannabis use, it was significantly related to log odds of using cannabis at least three times per day—patients in both the high and moderate pain level group had much greater log odds of at least thrice-daily cannabis consumption than the low pain group.

Does Cannabis Help Chronic Pain Patients in Other Ways? Conclusion Leaves ‘A Lot of Questions to Answer’

The study authors stated in their conclusion that while patients with high pain levels are more likely to use cannabis multiple times per day, its effect on better health is undetermined.

The reason for this is not entirely clear, according to lead study author Alexis Cooke, MPH, PhD, a postdoctoral scholar in psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco; Dr. Cooke noted that perhaps it is because patients with high chronic pain are more likely to have poorer health to begin with compared to the general population. However, she said, “There are still a lot of questions to answer.”

Dr. Cooke also noted that marijuana has other documented health benefits, which may be helpful for the chronic pain population.

“Chronic pain is also associated with depression and anxiety. Marijuana may help with these problems for some people, even if it doesn’t help with the pain,” she said. It may also perhaps help with appetite in patients who experience nausea from treatments such as cancer drugs.