Medicinal Cannabis: A Promising Option for Cancer Pain Relief

Recent Canadian research suggests that medicinal cannabis may help relieve pain caused by cancer and reduce the number of drugs patients need. In a study of 358 cancer patients, researchers concluded that cannabis was a safe option for managing pain alongside other drugs. Although only specialist hospital doctors can prescribe cannabis-based medicines on the NHS, mostly for severe epilepsy, ongoing research is being conducted to evaluate its efficacy in treating pain.

Published in BMJ Supportive & Palliative Care, the study found medicinal cannabis to be “a safe and effective complementary treatment for pain relief in patients with cancer”. Products with an equal balance of the active ingredients tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD) appeared to be the most effective. While THC produces a “high”, CBD does not. Among the patients studied, about a quarter took THC-dominant products, 38% used THC-CBD-balanced drugs, and 17% took CBD-dominant products. The most common side-effects were dizziness and fatigue.

The researchers, from institutions such as McGill University, Harvard Medical School, and the Royal College of Surgeons in Dublin, noted that about a third of all cancer patients and two-thirds of those who are terminally ill experience moderate to severe pain. Although painkillers are the standard treatment, a third of cancer patients are still believed to experience pain. After taking cannabis medicines, patients reported feeling significantly less pain and noticed it interfering less with their daily life.

However, more rigorous trials using a control group to compare the effects of cannabis medicines with a dummy drug are needed to confirm these findings. Since 2018, UK law has allowed the prescription of unlicensed cannabis-based medicines in very specific circumstances, such as for children and adults with rare, severe forms of epilepsy, for adults with vomiting or nausea caused by chemotherapy, and for people with muscle stiffness and spasms caused by multiple sclerosis (MS).

Official guidance states that medicinal cannabis is not recommended for treating pain or most types of epilepsy, and more research is needed, particularly regarding any benefits and risks of these medicines for children and young people. A Department of Health and Social Care official said that licensed cannabis-based medicines are funded routinely by the NHS where there is clear evidence of their quality, safety, and effectiveness. They emphasized that unlicensed cannabis-based products for medicinal use must be proven safe and effective before being considered for routine NHS funding. The department is working closely with partners to establish clinical trials to test the safety and efficacy of more cannabis-based products for medicinal use to inform future NHS funding decisions. (Source)

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