An Examination of Medical Marijuana

By:    Medically Reviewed: Tom Iarocci, MD   Published: March 28, 2014

As more research is conducted, the list of potential uses of medical marijuana is growing.

a a a
Fifty-two percent of Americans favor legalizing marijuana, according to a 2013 poll by the respected Pew Research Center, and 20 states and the District of Columbia have legalized medical marijuana. These figures are higher than ever before. The shift in attitude springs, at least partially, from a growing body of research finding more and more health benefits of medical marijuana.

While much more research is needed on marijuana for medical uses, experts do have some agreement on which health conditions marijuana can help. They also have some caveats about doses and who should avoid using pot for what ails them.

 

Overview of Medical Pot

 

Marijuana for pain relief is perhaps the most studied area, says Barth Wilsey, MD, associate physician of physical medicine and rehabilitation at the University of California Davis Medical Center and a long-time researcher in the field.

 

In his own research, he has focused on testing marijuana for patients with nerve pain linked with spinal cord injury, diabetes, shingles or HIV.  He has found that patients with these types of nerve pain often respond to low doses of marijuana. He has tested marijuana in cigarette form and in vaporized form (which releases fewer toxins).

 

Although people usually smoke far fewer marijuana cigarettes than tobacco cigarettes in a day, chronic marijuana use is associated with some of the same risks as cigarette smoking, including lung cancer, so there is interest in delivering the therapeutic agents while minimizing the toxins.

 

Patients with chronic nerve pain (a particular type of pain) who were given marijuana reported a 40 percent decline in the intensity of their pain, compared to just a 20 percent reduction in a comparison group not given marijuana, according to an update on medical marijuana reported by Wilsey and others in The Open Neurology Journal.

 

''No, marijuana doesn't take away all the nerve pain," Wilsey says. "But it's as good as our current drugs. It's really good for nerve pain that is resistant to conventional medicine."

 

"There's some evidence it works on the brain's glial cells," he adds. "Glia release substances that cause neurons to fire spontaneously, causing the pain."

 

"I think there is also promise in using it to combat nausea from chemotherapy," Wilsey says of marijuana.

 

Medical marijuana has also better helped relieve the muscle stiffness affecting patients with multiple sclerosis compared to placebo, other research shows. Adverse events were consistent with known side effects.

 

Weighing Benefits and Risks of Medical Marijuana

 

Smoking marijuana is not without health risks. The dose of medical marijuana used should always be the lowest possible, Wilsey says. Today’s marijuana delivers far more THC than in the past. Using higher doses may induce a mental fog — not good for anyone trying to be productive, but especially harmful for those with certain conditions such as multiple sclerosis (MS). MS patients are already at risk of cognitive decline due to the disease's effect on brain cells.

 

The goal, says Wilsey, is to determine the dose effective for the condition, without compromising thinking abilities.

 

Taking the Next Steps

 

Wilsey has this advice for those thinking of using medicinal marijuana:                                         

  • Consider your individual health situation. "In people with coronary artery disease, for instance, it raises the heart rate," he says, which is a potentially harmful consequence. Pregnant women should also abstain.
  • Do not smoke and drive.
  • Do not expect too much. Marijuana is by no means a magic remedy. However, in some studies, it has been shown to work as well as conventional treatments or to work when conventional treatments have failed.

 

For Caregivers

 

If a loved one has pain or another condition that isn't responding to conventional treatments, you might ask his physician if medical marijuana is a possibility.

 

If a loved one suffers from a condition for which medicinal marijuana has not yet been studied, you can help by searching to see if a clinical trial is ongoing. See http://www.clinicaltrials.gov.

More in Health A-Z
New on SymptomFind
a a a  
sources
  • Wilsey B., MD, associate physician of physical medicine and rehabilitation at the University of California Davis Medical Center. http://www.ucdmc.ucdavis.edu/publish/providerbio/search/238. Interviewed March 2014.
  • Wilsey B., MD, Marcott T., Tsodikov A., et al. "A Randomized, Placebo-Controlled, Crossover Trial of Cannabis Cigarettes in Neuropathic Pain." The Journal of Pain. 2008; 9 (6); pages 506-521. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18403272. Accessed March 2014.
  • Wilsey B., MD, Marcotte T., Deutsch R., et al. "Low-Dose Vaporized Cannabis Significantly Improves Neuropathic Pain." The Journal of Pain. 2013; 14 (2); pages 136-148. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23237736. Accessed March 2014.
  • Pew Research Center. "Majority Now Supports Legalizing Marijuana." April 2013. http://www.people-press.org/2013/04/04/majority-now-supports-legalizing-marijuana. Accessed March 2014.
  • Penner E., MD, MPH, Buettner H., BA, Mittleman M., DrPH. "The Impact of Marijuana Use on Glucose, Insulin, and Insulin Resistance among US Adults." The American Journal of Medicine. 2013; 126 (7); pages 583-589. http://www.amjmed.com/article/S0002-9343(13)00200-3/abstract. Accessed March 2014.
  • Grant I., Atkinson J., Gouaux B., et al. "Medical Marijuana: Clearing Away the Smoke." The Open Neurology Journal. 2012; 6; pages 18-25. http://benthamscience.com/open/openaccess.php?toneuj/articles/V006/18TONEUJ.htm. Accessed March 2014.
RELATED ARTICLES
NEED ANSWERS?