The use of medical marijuana to treat pain and other symptoms associated with cancer and chemotherapy shows promising results, according to Israeli researchers who say many patients found they needed fewer painkillers.
In an eight week study of 131 cancer patients who used cannabis, published in the journal Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, researchers reported significant improvement across a range of symptoms.
“All cancer or anti-cancer treatment-related symptoms, including nausea, vomiting, mood disorders, fatigue, weight loss, anorexia, constipation, sexual function, sleep disorders, itching, and pain had significant improvement,” wrote lead author Gil Bar-Sela, of the Integrated Oncology and Palliative Care Unit, Rambam Health Care Campus in Haifa.
“The population of the prolonged users in the current study reported significant improvement in all aspects of supportive and palliative oncology care.”
What makes this small study unique is its emphasis on medical marijuana, as opposed to synthetic cannabis, which is what researchers say is usually used during clinical studies.
Nearly one in three patients who used medical marijuana reported significant relief from cancer related pain and discomfort.
Of the 70 patients who used opioid pain medications at the start of the study, 31 of them reduced the dose they were taking eight weeks later. One out of three patients taking anti-depressant or anxiety drugs also reported a reduction in dosage at the study’s end.
There were no significant side effects to the cannabis, except for some memory loss.
Over 200 cancer patients were initially enrolled in the study. About 25 percent died before the study concluded. Others dropped out because they were concerned about dizziness, fainting, nausea and psychosis they believed was caused by cannabis use.
A separate analysis of 39 patients who had neuropathic pain found that many had positive results after inhaling vaporized cannabis, with the number reporting severe pain cut in half.
“The vaporized cannabis, even at low doses, showed analgesic efficacy with minimal psychoactive effects and may present an effective option for patients with treatment-resistant neuropathic pain,” wrote Bar-Sela.
Medical marijuana doesn’t have the stigma in Israel as it does in many parts of the U.S., where it is legal in only 20 states and the District of Columbia.
Israeli Ministry of Health regulations allow for medical marijuana to be used to treat cancer symptoms and to reduce the side effects of chemotherapy. Eight farms have Ministry of Health permission to grow cannabis for medicinal use, and four companies have permission to deliver cannabis to cancer patients, who are allowed up to 30 grams per month.