There is not enough scientific evidence for doctors to recommend that patients use medical marijuana to treat pain from rheumatoid arthritis, according to a researcher and rheumatologist at McGill University Health Center in Quebec, Canada.
“In the light of the current lack of concrete medical evidence for either the efficacy or risks of herbal cannabis for the management of rheumatic complaints, physicians are obligated to caution patients about the known risks of herbal cannabis that have been reported for recreational users,” wrote lead investigator Dr. Mary-Ann Fitzcharles in an article published in Arthritis Care & Research, a journal of the American College of Rheumatology.
Possible risks due to long term use of herbal cannabis include mental illness, dependence, addiction, effects on memory and cognition, and respiratory health problems, according to Fitzcharles,
“At this time, we cannot recommend herbal cannabis for arthritis pain management given the lack of efficacy data, potential harm from the drug, and availability of other therapies for managing pain. Physicians should discourage rheumatology patients from using medical marijuana as a therapy,” she said.
Although medical marijuana has never been recommended by any rheumatology group, patients around the world are increasingly turning to cannabis to treat arthritis pain.
“Severe arthritis” is the diagnosis for nearly two thirds (65%) of Canadians authorized to possess cannabis for medicinal use. And up to a third of medical marijuana users in the United Kingdom and Australia also say they use cannabis to treat arthritis pain.
In the U.S. twenty states, including the District of Columbia (DC), have legalized cannabis for medical purposes.
Lori Berry started using marijuana to treat her arthritis pain about a year ago – and with good results.
“Amazingly it completely erased the pain for 4 to 6 hours. I was able to not take the Motrin or Vicodin and I was functioning well with little pain. And the marijuana has helped me eat so I don’t wind up in the hospital,” she said in an email to National Pain Report.
“My lovely doctor says she’s refusing to prescribe any more pain meds unless I sign a pain contact and give up the medical marijuana. I refuse.”
But just because a patient wants medical marijuana doesn’t mean it’s good for them, according to Fitzcharles.
“Simply acceding to patient demands for a treatment on the basis of popular advocacy, without comprehensive knowledge of an agent, does not adhere to the ethical standards of medical practice,” she wrote.
“While there is good evidence for efficacy of cannabinoids for treating some chronic pain conditions, such as cancer and neuropathic pain, these pain types have different underlying mechanism from the mostly peripheral/nociceptive pain in rheumatic diseases. Thus one cannot extrapolate efficacy to patients with rheumatic conditions.”
One small study did find that Sativex, a marijuana based oral spray, did provide a “significant analgesic effect” for patients with rheumatoid arthritis.