A Fresh Look at the Efficacy of Medical Cannabis in Cancer Pain Management

Researchers from international institutions have concluded that medicinal cannabis could potentially play a significant role in alleviating cancer-related pain, based on findings from a study involving 358 patients. The research, with contributors from McGill University, Harvard Medical School, and the Royal College of Surgeons in Dublin, among others, suggests that it may also limit the need for other pharmaceutical interventions.

Presently in the UK, only specialist hospital doctors are able to prescribe cannabis-based treatments, primarily for the management of severe epilepsy. Data regarding its efficacy in pain management is still being gathered, however, this new study, which has been published in BMJ Supportive & Palliative Care, offers positive indications.

The research demonstrated that medicinal cannabis could serve as a “safe and effective adjunctive treatment for pain relief in cancer patients.” It was noted that products offering a balanced mix of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD) – two of the active components found in cannabis plants – were the most beneficial. While THC is known for its psychoactive effects, CBD does not have the same impact.

The study participants opted for a variety of products:

About 25% chose THC-dominant products
38% used THC-CBD-balanced drugs
17% preferred CBD-dominant products

Dizziness and fatigue were the most frequently reported side effects.

Approximately one third of all cancer patients, and up to two thirds of terminal cases, experience moderate to severe pain. Standard treatments often fail to provide sufficient relief, with one third of cancer patients reportedly still experiencing pain.

In this study, patients were questioned every three months for a year about their pain levels and medication use. Following the introduction of the cannabis medicines, patients reported experiencing less pain and found that it caused less disruption to their daily lives.

However, the researchers stressed that further studies, employing control groups and placebos for comparison, are necessary to validate these findings.

Since 2018, UK law has permitted the prescription of unlicensed cannabis-based medicines under specific circumstances such as rare, severe forms of epilepsy, nausea induced by chemotherapy, and muscle stiffness caused by multiple sclerosis (MS).

Yet, official guidelines maintain that medicinal cannabis is not recommended for pain treatment or most types of epilepsy, citing the need for more research, especially concerning potential benefits and risks to children and young people.

A representative from the Department of Health and Social Care affirmed, “NHS regularly funds licensed cannabis-based medicines where their quality, safety, and effectiveness have clear evidence.” They added that unlicensed cannabis-based medicinal products must meet the same criteria before they can be considered for NHS funding. The Department is working with partners to set up clinical trials to evaluate the safety and efficacy of more cannabis-based products for medicinal use, with a view to guide future NHS funding decisions.