A new study out of The Ohio State University (OSU) says it is unclear whether or not marijuana use helps with pain, and it may worsen overall health.
The study published in the International Journal of Drug Policy found that medical marijuana users who say they have high levels of pain are more likely than those with low levels of pain to report using cannabis three or more times a day. Additionally, those daily marijuana users who report severe pain are more likely to report that their health had worsened over the past year.
Researches said the results didn’t mean that marijuana is not effective in treating pain, but that more research is needed before it can be considered an effective treatment for severe pain.
“It’s not clear if marijuana is helping or not,” Bridget Freisthler, co-author of the study and a professor of social work at OSU said. “The benefits aren’t as clear-cut as some people assume.”
The study surveyed 295 Los Angeles medical marijuana dispensary patients in 2013. Participants were asked how often they used marijuana, what their current health was compared to the previous year, and what their pain level was – low, moderate, or high.
Of those surveyed, 44 percent reported having low pain, while 31 percent reported high pain levels. Forty-five percent of the participants reported daily marijuana use, and nearly half of them said they used marijuana three or more times per day. About 60 percent of those who used three or more times a day reported high pain, compared to only 51 percent of those with moderate pain, and 39 percent of those in the low-pain group.
In those with low levels of pain, no association was found between daily marijuana use and health status. But in those with high levels of pain, there was a reported worsening health status linked to daily marijuana use.
But, the researchers noted, there was not an association between the number of time participants used marijuana per day and changes in their health status.
The relationship between pain, marijuana, and self-reported health is a complex one, said Alexis Cooke, lead study author and postdoctoral scholar in psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco.
“Having high chronic pain is related to poorer health, so it may be that people who are using marijuana more often already had worse health to begin with,” Cooke said. “There are still a lot of questions to answer.”
Cooke said the study shows how little we know about marijuana as medicine, how people are using it, what dosages they are receiving, and the drug’s long-term effects.
“Chronic pain is also associated with depression and anxiety. Marijuana may help with these problems for some people, even if it doesn’t help with the pain,” she said.
However, she said, it may not be pain patients are using the marijuana to address. Patients could be using it to boost appetites lost because of pain or nausea caused by cancer drugs or for other reasons.
The study indicates that more research is needed on the connection between marijuana and pain relief, the study authors said.
“Particularly since the opioid crisis, some people have been touting marijuana as a good substitute for opioids for people in pain,” Freisthler said. “But our study suggests we don’t know that marijuana is helping to address pain needs.”