More than 3 million people will be diagnosed with arthritis in the United States in 2019 alone, and an estimated 54 million are already living with the disease, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Inflammation in the joints leads to pain, reduced range of motion, and stiffness in arthritic individuals, most of whom are older than 65. Prescription pain medication, over-the-counter pain relievers, and joint replacement surgeries are among the most common treatments for arthritis.
Frustrated with the side effects of their medications and wary of surgery, some arthritis sufferers are turning to cannabis to soothe their joint discomfort. Could medical marijuana be a viable treatment option for arthritis?
Research has been steadily building with regard to medical marijuana for arthritis, and many studies have indicated that cannabis may be beneficial in treating the joint pain and inflammation linked to the disease.
Concerning generalized joint pain, a 2017 study published in Clinical and Experimental Rheumatology determined that “the preclinical and human data that do exist indicate that the use of cannabis should be taken seriously as a potential treatment of joint pain.” But does this potential treatment extend to arthritis in particular?
The answer is yes, according to a 2018 study published in Current Opinion in Pharmacology. Researchers found that cannabinoids had the potential to treat pain associated with osteoarthritis, the most prevalent form of arthritis that causes degeneration of cartilage and bones. Also noted in the study was the fact that the body's endocannabinoid system (ECS) had the ability to combat joint-related pain.
An earlier study on animals published in 2015 in the European Journal of Pain found that CBD decreased inflammation and pain in rodents.
While results from tests performed on animals may not reflect the human experience, a 2018 study published in the Journal of Headache Pain reported positive findings from a medical cannabis cohort of patients. Researchers found that cannabis varieties high in the terpenes of caryophyllene and myrcene were most successful at treating headaches, migraines, and other pain disorders including arthritis.
Studies performed thus far on cannabis for arthritis have been encouraging and fall in line with what some patients have already expressed.
At 58 years old, Alexandra Callner couldn't sleep because the arthritis pain in her knees was so severe. Over-the-counter pain pills were ineffective for Callner, and they came with unpleasant side effects including nausea. Then, Callner started a regimen of cannabis, and her symptoms rapidly improved.
Callner told WebMD in 2018: “Every night, I get into bed, read about an hour, take one or two puffs, and then I am off to sleep. The pain has become much lighter.”
Actor Sir Patrick Stewart has reaped similar benefits from using medical marijuana for his arthritis. Suffering from osteoarthritis in both hands, Stewart found relief with a combination of cannabis ointment, spray, and edibles. In a statement published in 2017 in Huffington Post, the actor cited a lack of adverse side effects from his cannabis treatments and shared:
“I believe that the ointment and spray have significantly reduced the stiffness and pain in my hands. I can make fists, which was not the case before I began this treatment.”
In addition to the physical benefits that Stewart has experienced, some patients have reported psychological improvements from their medical marijuana. In 2017, The New York Times interviewed Anita Mataraso, a 72-year-old grandmother of six who uses cannabis on a daily basis for arthritis and nerve pain. Mataraso said, “I would be in a lot worse shape if I wasn't using cannabis, both physically and mentally.”
But what do physicians and other medical experts have to say about using cannabis to treat arthritis pain?
What the Experts Say
Dr. Jason McDougall, professor in the department of pharmacology and anesthesia at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, has been studying how medical cannabis could work to manage arthritis pain.
In an interview with Canadian Broadcasting Corp. (CBC) Radio, McDougall analyzed the nerve endings of arthritis sufferers, saying: “They're all bare, they're all raw and responsible for feeling a lot of pain. What we hypothesize is that by locally administering these cannabis-like molecules to those nerves, we'd actually be able to repair them and reduce the pain of arthritis."
Despite positive outcomes from a number of scientific studies, not every expert is in agreement with McDougall. Dr. Angela Bryan, professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of Colorado, told WebMD on April 20, 2018, “the evidence we have thus far suggests that cannabis is moderately effective for pain relief." But Bryan stressed how the studies have not compared cannabis to other forms of pain relief, which could offer deeper insights.
Some experts will undoubtedly advocate for cannabis as a pain management option for arthritis, while others will remain skeptical. Ultimately, the studies and patients' own experiences will tell the tale.
The Bottom Line
Numerous studies have shown that medical marijuana could be a pain-relieving and anti-inflammatory solution for individuals coping with arthritis.