By Ayman Juzi
Chronic pain is one of the most prevalent conditions to affect the UK population: over 40% of the population struggle with long-term pain - double the European average of 20%. This puts immense pressure on the National Health Service - there are over 4.6 million GP appointments a year related to chronic pain, costing the tax-payer approximately £70 million annually. It's expensive because typically patients struggle to manage their condition; regular changes in treatments and dosage are common, with uncertainty becoming a way of life for someone managing chronic pain. The treatments can often lead to the use of opioids - although these are commonly associated with the US - the UK actually has the fastest growing rate of opioid prescriptions in the world. Opioids bring many problems to the table, including the high risk of strong side effects and addiction - it is estimated that well over 500,000 UK patients have already developed some level of addiction to opioids.
While the UK pushes in the wrong direction, the US is fighting hard to reverse the tragic effects of widespread opioid use. One way this is happening is through medical cannabis: various studies have shown opioid prescriptions decrease alongside the legalisation of medical cannabis in any given state.
There is no simple answer, but looking at the data, the relationship between chronic pain and cannabis is undeniable. Various studies have shown the therapeutic benefits of cannabis, with a focus on delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) reducing neuropathic pain intensity in a variety of conditions. Last week, a small 6-month study published by Harvard University demonstrated that patients with neuropathy, joint pain and arthritis experienced better symptom management with medical cannabis while decreasing the use of their original opioid-based prescriptions. Many other studies backup these findings, including a recent study in the UK that showed that the ‘Benefit vs Safety’ ratio was best with cannabinoids in the treatment of long-term neuropathic pain. Research in the Netherlands by Leiden University showed that Fibromyalgia patients reported at least 30% less pain and discomfort when using high-THC products: there is growing evidence that cannabinoids are more effective than Opioids.
Chronic pain can easily be sidelined by society as a whole, even though it is so prevalent. Dr. Alan Fayaz, a UK-based chronic pain expert summarises why:
“It is costly at an individual and societal level; healthcare costs attributable to chronic pain outstrip those of cancer and cardiovascular diseases combined - and yet it doesn't have as high a profile. There is a reluctance to talk about pain because it isn't as visible or tangible as other conditions”.
While the studies so far show promise for medical cannabis as an alternative treatment for many chronic pain conditions, more research is necessary. Heaps of historic (dating back 1000s of years) and modern anecdotal evidence worldwide has shown that cannabis can help with chronic pain issues, however, further study is necessary to help the UK’s chronic pain patients match the best products for their specific conditions.
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