Medical cannabis reduces pain and the need for opiate analgesics in cancer patients

A comprehensive review of the benefits of medicinal cannabis for cancer-related pain found that for most oncology patients, pain measures significantly improved, other cancer-related symptoms also decreased, painkiller use was reduced, and side effects were minimal. Published in Limits in pain researchthese findings suggest that medical cannabis could be carefully considered as an alternative to the pain-relieving drugs commonly prescribed to cancer patients.

Pain, along with depression, anxiety and insomnia, are some of the most fundamental causes of disability and suffering of oncology patients while undergoing treatment therapies, and can even lead to a worsened prognosis.

“Traditionally, cancer-related pain has primarily been treated with opioid analgesics, but most oncologists consider opioid treatment to be dangerous, so alternative therapies are required,” explains author David Meiri, assistant professor at the Technion Israel Institute of Technology.

“Our study is the first to assess the potential benefits of medicinal cannabis for cancer-related pain in oncology patients; collecting information from the start of treatment and with repeated follow-ups for a longer period of time, to get a thorough analysis of effectiveness.”


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Need for alternative treatment

After speaking with several cancer patients seeking alternative options for pain and symptom relief, the researchers set out to thoroughly test the potential benefits of medicinal cannabis.

“We came across numerous cancer patients who asked us whether medicinal cannabis treatment could benefit their health,” said study co-author Gil Bar-Sela, an associate professor at Ha’Emek Medical Center Afula. “Our initial review of existing research revealed that not much was actually known about its effectiveness, particularly for treating cancer-related pain, and from what was known, most of the findings were inconclusive.”

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

“Patients completed anonymous questionnaires before starting treatment, and again at various times during the following six months. We collected data on a number of factors, including pain measurements, painkiller use, burden of cancer symptoms, sexual problems and side effects,” said Bar-Sela.

Improved Symptoms

An analysis of the data found that many of the outcome measures improved, with less pain and cancer symptoms. Importantly, the use of opioids and other painkillers has been reduced. In fact, almost half of the patients studied stopped all pain-relieving medication after six months of treatment with medicinal cannabis.

“Medical cannabis has been suggested as a possible remedy for appetite loss, but most patients in this study still lost weight. Since a significant proportion of patients have been diagnosed with progressive cancer, weight loss is expected as the disease progresses,” said Meiri.

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

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

“While our study was very comprehensive and offered additional perspectives on medical cannabis, gender, age and ethnicity, as well as cancer types and stage of cancer meant that the variety of patients in our study was wide. Therefore, future studies should investigate the level of effectiveness of medicinal cannabis in specific subgroups of cancer patients with more shared characteristics.”

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