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Medical marijuana vs. prescription painkillers to treat chronic pain

Posted on 07-08-2016 Posted in Medicine, Substance Abuse, Treatment - 0 Comments

Medical marijuana vs. prescription painkillers

Opioids, including heroin and prescription pain medications (e.g., oxycodone, hydrocodone, codeine, morphine, fentanyl), attach to opioid receptors on nerve cells in the body and the brain to produce pleasurable effects and pain relief. Prescription opioids are frequently prescribed for treating moderate to severe pain; however, due to the euphoria and pain relief produced by these drugs, they are frequently taken in larger quantities than prescribed or without a doctor’s prescription.

The high prevalence of opioid abuse and dependence across the country has increased the need for opioid addiction treatment as well as alternatives to the management of chronic pain. In May 2016, a new bill (H.R. 4641) was passed by the U.S. House of Representatives, which requires the Department of Health and Human Services to establish an interagency task force to “review, modify, and update best practices for pain management and prescribing pain medication, and for other purposes.” In addition, the task force is required to examine and identify alternatives to opioid pain medications.

One such alternative to prescribing opiate painkillers is medical marijuana, wrote Charles A. Bush-Joseph, M.D., a professor in the department of orthopedic surgery at Rush University Medical Center, in an article for the Chicago Tribune. Researchers have suggested that marijuana may also be used to wean patients off opioids.

Medical marijuana as an alternative to prescription painkillers

Previous research documents the therapeutic benefits of using medical marijuana to treat patients with chronic pain disorders (e.g., headaches and migraines), neuropathic pain from sensory neuropathy associated with HIV, and movement disorders such as Parkinson’s disease. As such, medical marijuana has been increasingly prescribed by physicians as an alternative to opioid pain medications for treating patients who have persistent chronic pain disorders and medical conditions that cause nerve pain.

Donald Abrams, M.D., a professor of clinical medicine at the University California San Francisco (UCSF), and his colleagues conducted a 2007 study that examined the use of cannabis in HIV-associated sensory neuropathy. The results showed that chronic pain patients used cannabis to significantly decrease or eliminate their use of opioid pain medications to manage their pain.

In addition, a 2014 survey conducted by Charles W. Webb, M.D., and Sandra M. Webb, R.N., B.S.N., examined the therapeutic benefits of medical cannabis for chronic pain and found a 64 percent relative reduction in pain experienced by chronic pain patients. Six percent of patients even wrote brief notes to the researchers about how cannabis helped them to discontinue or decrease their use of other medications (e.g., oxycodone, Xanax, etc.).

A growing body of evidence suggests that opioid use disorders and other types of drug addiction are influenced by the endocannabinoid system. Recent research has also targeted the endocannabinoid system as an adjunctive approach to treatment with naltrexone for opioid dependence. Although cannabis is a potential alternative to opioid medications for treating chronic pain, further research is needed to investigate its safety and efficacy for treating patients with chronic pain.  Thus, cannabis use may very well be a viable option for combating the opioid epidemic.

Sovereign Health of Florida provides comprehensive, evidence-based behavioral health treatment services to patients with mental health, substance use and co-occurring disorders. For more information on the treatment of chronic pain at Sovereign Health, please contact our 24/7 helpline to speak to a member of our team.

About the author

Amanda Habermann is a writer for the Sovereign Health Group. A graduate of California Lutheran University, she received her M.S. in clinical psychology with an emphasis in psychiatric rehabilitation. She brings to the team her background in research, testing and assessment, diagnosis and recovery techniques. For more information and other inquiries about this article, contact the author at

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