The fact that the majority of medical marijuana users consume to manage chronic pain is no secret. It is also no secret that medical marijuana patients swear by the pain-relieving effects of THC. But a 2012 study suggests that maybe THC’s ability to help manage chronic pain has less to do with relieving it and more to do with distracting from it.
Utah Marijuana, a Utah medical cannabis clinic that helps patients obtain their medical cannabis cards, produces a weekly podcast known as Utah in the Weeds. Numerous guests on the podcast have implied similar sentiments. They have explained that medical marijuana doesn’t necessarily take away their pain. It just makes it less bothersome.
If both the 2012 study and anecdotal evidence are correct, the way THC addresses chronic pain is quite revolutionary. And knowing what we know about marijuana compared to opioids, treating pain with THC seems to be a lot more palatable than giving people prescriptions for addictive drugs like fentanyl.
A Very Limited Study
It must be noted that the 2012 study was a very limited study looking at only a dozen subjects. Researchers at Oxford University chose twelve volunteers who appeared healthy and claimed they had never used marijuana before. Researchers tested two things: the subjects’ perception of pain and how much their pain bothered them.
To set things up, researchers applied a cream to each subject’s legs. The cream contained 1% capsaicin to create a continuous sense of burning. The subjects were given either a THC tablet or placebo as a ‘treatment’ for the pain. Finally, each subject was interviewed and subjected to an MRI scan of the brain.
To their surprise, the researchers discovered that subjects reported the same level of pain regardless of treatment method. But compared to the placebo group, the THC group said that the pain they experienced did not bother them as much.
According to the MRI scan, subject brains did not demonstrate the same kind of activity observed when opioid painkillers are present. This is to say that the THC did not trigger the same brain activity normally associated with pain relief. It did not block pain signals.
A Distraction from the Pain
Researchers concluded that THC doesn’t actually relieve pain in the same way opioids do. Rather than blocking pain signals, THC distracts the brain from the presence of pain. This allegedly creates an emotional disconnect between the physical sensation of pain and how a person emotionally feels about it.
The data suggests that THC does for some people what natural makeup does for others. In terms of that natural makeup, there are some people that have a higher pain tolerance. A certain level of pain doesn’t bother them at all. They can work through it and continue on without missing a beat.
Assuming THC distracts rather than relieves pain, it may be effectively doing the same thing. It is raising the pain threshold so that the perception of pain is less of a problem. This would explain why medical cannabis users managing chronic pain report they are able to function more normally at home, at work, etc.
Conversely, the same mechanisms that enable opioids to block pain signals inhibit a person’s ability to function. Patients taking painkillers after surgery, for example, usually aren’t up and around. They are not engaged in normal activities. They sleep a lot; they lie around a lot; they feel spaced out.
Unfortunately, a significant amount of follow-up research doesn’t appear to be available. More research is definitely needed to either confirm or refute the 2012 study.