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Cannabis Reduces Pain By Making it More Bearable

Update Date: Dec 25, 2012 09:55 AM EST

A new study suggests that cannabis helps some people deal with pain by making it more bearable, rather than actually reducing it. A new Oxford study, which used brain imaging, found a psychoactive ingredient in cannabis that reduces activity in a part of the brain linked to emotional aspects of pain.

The psychoactive ingredient known as THC reduces activity in areas of brain linked to emotional aspects of suffering. However, the effect of pain on different individuals is diverse, the researchers say. While for some, cannabis may work wonders to reduce pain, in some others, the effects might not be quite the same.

"Cannabis does not seem to act like a conventional pain medicine. Some people respond really well, others not at all, or even poorly. Brain imaging shows little reduction in the brain regions that code for the sensation of pain, which is what we tend to see with drugs like opiates. Instead cannabis appears to mainly affect the emotional reaction to pain in a highly variable way," Lead researcher Dr Michael Lee, was quoted as saying by Mail online.

Pain without a clear reason, which is long lasting, often becomes a concern for the patient, and the diagnosis or relief may involve medications, physiotherapy and other forms of physical therapy, and psychological support. However, cannabis or cannabis-based medication apparently has benefited many patients when medicines have failed to control such kind of pain.  But then there also others who reported that cannabis did not show any effect on the pain, instead they experienced only side effects.

"We carried out this study to try and get at what is happening when someone experiences pain relief using cannabis," says Dr Lee.

For the study, the researchers recruited 12 healthy men and gave them either a 15mg tablet of THC or a placebo. The researchers then rubbed some pain inducing cream on to the skin of the participants. While some of the participants received a dummy cream, others received a chilli cream that caused a burning sensation.

The study was performed three more times and the participants also had four MRI tests.

"The participants were asked to report the intensity and unpleasantness of the pain: how much it burned and how much it bothered them," says Dr Lee.

"We found that with THC, on average people didn't report any change in the burn, but the pain bothered them less."

The latest study has been published in the journal Pain. It was funded by the UK Medical Research Council and the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Oxford Biomedical Research Centre.

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