Medical marijuana reduces the use of prescription opioids in those patients battling chronic pain, experts revealed.
Patients using cannabis to control chronic pain reported a 64 per cent reduction in their use of traditional pain medications, a new study concluded.
The findings suggest that prescribing medical marijuana instead of painkillers, such as OxyContin and Vicodin, may help tackle the opioid epidemic that’s currently sweeping the US.
Deaths from misuse and abuse of prescription opioids reached 19,000 in 2014 – the highest figure on record, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Senior study author Dr Daniel Clauw, of the University of Michigan, said: ‘We are learning that the higher the dose of opioids people are taking, the higher the risk of death from overdose.
‘The magnitude of reduction in our study is significant enough to affect an individual’s risk of accidental death from overdose.’
The team of University of Michigan scientists surveyed 185 patients from a medical marijuana dispensary.
The surveys were conducted between November 2013 and February 2015.
The scientists originally sought to determine if cannabis use was more effective for sufferers of severe centralized chronic pain.
The Food and Drug Administration revealed plans to add their strongest warning labels to prescription painkillers, such as Vicodin and Percocet, to stem the epidemic of opioid abuse.
The agency will add a ‘black box’ warning to all immediate-release prescription opioid painkillers – which includes nearly 175 branded and generic drugs.
Those medications are among the most commonly prescribed drugs in the US – accounting for 90 per cent of all opioid painkillers.
The FDA added similar warnings to long-acting drugs – such as OxyContin, which release their dosage slowly, over 12 hours or more – nearly three years ago.
But now, both immediate and extended-release formulations will contain warnings that detail the risks of addiction, abuse, overdose and death.
For those patients, opioids have not always worked well.
Dr Clauw said: ‘We hypothesized that cannabis might be particularly effective for the type of pain seen in conditions such as fibromyalgia, since there are many studies suggesting that synthetic cannabinoids work in those conditions.
‘We did not see this because the patients in this study rated cannabis to be equally effective for those with different pain severity.’
In addition to lower consumption of opioids, the patients in the study also reported fewer side effects from their medications.
Furthermore, they reported an overall 45 per cent improvement in quality of life since using marijuana to manage their pain.
But, it was the patients with less severe chronic pain who reported better quality of life and less use of opioids.
Study author Kevin Boehnke, a doctoral student, said: ‘We would caution against rushing to change current clinical practice towards cannabis, but note that this study suggests that cannabis is an effective pain medication and agent to prevent opioid overuse.’
Last week, the CDC issued 12 recommendations guidelines for prescribing opioids.
The CDC said that prescriptions for the opioids have quadrupled since 1999 – and 40 people die every day from an overdose of the drugs.
At the moment, 23 states and the District of Columbia have legalized cannabis for medical purposes – while four states allow it for recreational use.
Population level research has shown a reduction in opioid use in states where medical marijuana is legal, the scientists noted.
But, the current study is one of the first to examine individual patterns of use.
Earlier in the month, research from Israel followed people for six months – and found a 44 per cent reduction in opioid use.
The study was published in The Journal of Pain.
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