Medical marijuana has been rated the most effective alternative treatment for relieving chronic pain, according to the results of a new survey that also gave high marks to massage and chiropractic therapy.
The most widely used non-drug alternative treatment – vitamins and supplements – was rated the least effective by pain patients.
The online survey of over 2,400 women in chronic pain was conducted by National Pain Report and For Grace, a non-profit devoted to better care and wellness for women in pain.
Given a choice of 11 different alternative therapies, many women said they had tried several treatments in the past year.
Over 70% used vitamins and supplements, followed by exercise (66%), massage (49%), prayer (49%) and physical therapy (45%). Most were only effective about a third of the time.
Three out of ten women (29%) said no alternative treatment worked for them.
“I have been in pain for 18 years. I have tried all of the alternative treatments at one time. None of them helped long term,” wrote a woman who has fibromyalgia and four other chronic pain conditions.
“I have tried all of those alternative treatments except medical marijuana. None of those treatments worked to eliminate the pain, but exercise and massage do help to ease the pain somewhat,” wrote another.
Many women said they had tried non-drug therapies not on the list, including swimming, heating pads, diet changes, TENS units, aromatherapy and Chinese exercises such as Tai Chi. Some even resorted to the exotic, such as injections of South American fire ant venom, ozone therapy, and something called “pagan belief based ritual.”
But while there was plenty of enthusiasm and a willingness to try new treatments, many women said they were discouraged by the cost and the fact that many alternative therapies are not covered by insurance.
“Since disability provides me with such a small amount of money to live on and insurance does not cover most alternative therapies, I have not had the option to try most of them,” wrote one woman.
“Massage works best if I go at least once – two times a week, but insurance stopped covering it, and the cost is just not affordable with me not able to work,” wrote another.
“My insurance denies every alternative treatment option. No kidding,” said one respondent.
Many women said they were curious about medical marijuana, but were afraid to try it because cannabis is illegal in the countries and states where they live.
“I would LOVE to try Medical Marijuana,” wrote one woman. “But it is not available legally in Australia and I shouldn’t have to commit a crime just to have a chance at living pain free.”
“Marijuana… helps more than Tramadol, but I can’t legally get it in Finland. Even if I could get a prescription, it’s too expensive for me,” wrote another woman who suffers from osteoarthritis and back pain.
“I would love to try medical marijuana. I’ve never used recreational drugs in my life, but I really want to find out if there is an alternative to opiates for dealing with TN (trigeminal neuralgia) pain or spinal pain,” said another woman.
“I had a friend who was given medical marijuana and came to Kentucky for a visit and I took two puffs and it helped me more than anything else I have taken. However medical marijuana is not available in the state of Kentucky,” said a woman who has fibromyalgia, back pain, osteoarthritis and an autoimmune disease.
While marijuana was one of the least used alternative therapies, it quickly rose to the top when women were asked about the effectiveness of treatments they had tried.
Nearly 80% of the 431 women who used marijuana said it helped relieve their pain. Massage was the second most effective treatment (53%) and chiropractic (46%) was third.
Physical therapy and exercise — two treatments often recommended by physicians – were only effective about a third of the time, about the same as prayer, yoga and hypnosis.
Vitamins and supplements were rated the least effective treatment (24%).
“Cannabis is the only thing I’ve tried for fibromyalgia that actually helps to take the pain away,” wrote one woman.
“Marijuana did nothing for my pain, only made me feel restless and panicky. All of the other methods helped for an hour, but pain always returned, often worse than before,” wrote a woman who has fibromyalgia, back pain and neuropathy.
“I have had PT (physical therapy) and massage numerous times over the years; the marijuana doesn’t work that great for my pain but it does relax me and help me forget about it. Helps some with sleep,” said a woman who suffers from osteoarthritis, back pain, and neuropathy.
“Smoked weed and it helped ALOT but not legal in MS (Mississippi) so I am careful not to do. I don’t want to be arrested,” wrote a woman who has fibromyalgia, osteoarthritis, back pain, and neurorapthy.
“I am stuck (between) a rock and a hard place because the medical marijuana helps to motivate me to do exercise but it is not legal in my state. Without it the pain keeps me from exercising, causing me to gain weight which causes me to be in more pain,” wrote a woman who has fibromyalgia, migraine, rheumatoid arthritis and other chronic pain conditions.
Advocates of medical marijuana were delighted by the survey results – and the fact that so many pain patients were even talking about cannabis.
“I wish we had more people that were publicly speaking about (marijuana) and it’s a shame that they’re not. I think that these numbers are great, but if you were to ask someone face-to-face if that was a viable treatment, I don’t think they’d give you the same response. And I think that has to do with the stigma,” said John Nicolazzo, Chief Operating Officer of MarijuanaDoctors.com, a website that links patients with doctors willing to prescribe medical marijuana in states where it is legal.
“We have 23 states now. I’d be very interested in seeing these numbers when all 50 states are actually out there and open. I think these numbers would quadruple and beat out anything else that’s out there, like massage, acupuncture and everything else.”
But many physicians remain cautious about medical marijuana. Because cannabis has been illegal for so long, few studies have been done about its effectiveness and safety.
“The worst thing the marijuana industry could do is repeat the trivialization of risk that the opioid movement had in its early days,” said Steve Passik, PhD, a psychologist and Vice President of Research and Advocacy for Millennium Health. “If marijuana is going to be more available, either legally, medically or whatever, if that’s going to happen, it should happen with the full appreciation that it’s going to help some people and hurt some people. There are no risk free drugs. There just aren’t.
“If we make marijuana more available, some people are going to use it to their betterment and some people are going to be harmed.”
A previous survey by National Pain Report found that marijuana was more effective at relieving symptoms of fibromyalgia than any of the three prescription drugs approved by the Food and Drug Administration to treat the disorder.
To see the full results of the “Women in Pain” survey, click here.