The use of a synthetic compound modeled after tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), marijuana’s main psychoactive ingredient, has proven to be effective and well tolerated in treating chronic neuropathic pain, according to a small study published online in the journal Pain.
In a randomized, double-blind placebo controlled study, researchers at the University of Calgary’s Department of Neuroscience followed 37 patients with diabetic neuropathy, or nerve pain. Over the course of four weeks, the patients received daily doses of nabilone in addition to their existing pain medication.
According to researchers, the results were impressive. Twenty six of the initial patients had pain relief of 30 percent or more.
Those who responded well to nabilone continued to receive treatment for another five weeks, but some were given a placebo. Researchers said patients who received a daily dose of 2.9 mg of nabilone over that five week period had a significant reduction in pain and anxiety compared to those on the placebo. They also reported improved sleep and a better quality of life.
The authors of the study concluded that nabilone “was effective in relieving diabetic peripheral neuropathic pain (DPN) symptoms, improving disturbed sleep, quality of life, and overall patient status. Nabilone was well tolerated and successful as adjuvant in patients with DPN.”
By some estimates, five to ten percent of the population is affected by neuropathy, which results from damage or disease affecting the nerves controlling the body’s senses. The pain it produces can be very difficult to treat with only about half of patients achieving partial relief.
Sold under the brand name Cesamet, nabilone was approved by the FDA in 1985, but the medication wasn’t marketed in the U.S. until 2006. Nabilone is currently prescribed to treat nausea caused by cancer chemotherapy. It is also approved for use in treatment of anorexia weight loss in patients with AIDS.
Earlier this year, clinical trials data published in The Clinical Journal of Pain reported that cannabinoids were demonstrated to be safe and modestly effective treatments for neuropathy and other chronic pain conditions.
And in a separate paper published in the Harm Reduction Journal, researchers found that prescribing cannabinoids like nabilone instead of opioids for neuropathic pain “may reduce the morbidity and mortality rates associated with prescription pain medications and may be an effective harm reduction strategy.”
Other studies have reported that the use of cannabinoids by patients taking opiates, not only augments the analgesic effect of the drug, but can also potentially reduce their dependence on the highly addictive opioid.