In a first of its kind clinical trial using gold-standard methods, cannabis has been shown to mitigate the pain of sickle cell disease.
People who live with sickle cell disease suffer chronic pain. In this clinical trial co-led by University of California, Irvine, researcher Kalpna Gupta and Dr Donald Abrams of UC San Francisco, cannabis appears to be a safe and potentially effective treatment.
The findings have been published in JAMA Network Open.
Cannabis could be an alternative to opioids
Currently, opioids are prescribed as the most common form of treatment for chronic and acute pain caused by the disease, however, the rise in opioid-related deaths has caused an addiction crisis in America, leading to the medication being prescribed less to patients. This has left sickle cell patients with fewer options for pain treatment.
This double-blind, placebo-controlled, randomised trial was the first to employ gold-standard methods to assess cannabis’s potential for pain alleviation in people with sickle cell disease. The cannabis used in the trial was obtained from the National Institute on Drug Abuse – part of the National Institutes of Health – and contained equal parts of THC and CBD.
Gupta, a professor of medicine on the faculty of UCI’s Center for the Study of Cannabis, said: “Pain causes many people to turn to cannabis and is, in fact, the top reason that people cite for seeking cannabis from dispensaries. We don’t know if all forms of cannabis products will have a similar effect on chronic pain. Vaporised cannabis, which we employed, may be safer than other forms because lower amounts reach the body’s circulation. This trial opens the door for testing different forms of medical cannabis to treat chronic pain.”
The researchers assessed participants’ pain levels throughout the treatment period and found that the effectiveness of cannabis appeared to increase over time. As the five-day study period progressed, subjects reported that pain interfered less and less with activities, including walking and sleeping, and there was a statistically significant drop in how much pain affected their mood. Although pain levels were generally lower in patients given cannabis than in those given the placebo, the difference was not statistically significant.
“These trial results show that vaporised cannabis appears to be generally safe. They also suggest that sickle cell patients may be able to mitigate their pain with cannabis – and that cannabis might help society address the public health crisis related to opioids. Of course, we still need larger studies with more participants to give us a better picture of how cannabis could benefit people with chronic pain,” Gupta added.