Is Medical Marijuana More Effective Than Painkillers?

By Corinne Keating 04/20/17

Medical marijuana has risen above the rest as many seek out opioid-free pain relievers.

an assortment of colorful pills

Following the 2016 election, the use of medical marijuana in its various forms is legal in 28 states. With the push toward nationwide legalization, the legal use of this drug is still a hot-button topic as medical professionals discover the benefits for a variety of different conditions. One of the most popular uses for medical marijuana is as a replacement for prescription painkillers.

So far, it is clear that medical marijuana does in fact have many medical benefits. However, it still remains a Schedule I drug in the United States (Along with heroin and LSD) which makes clinical trials all the more difficult. Regardless, its medical use has been legalized in some states and continues to be a topic of discussion in the medical community. Is medical marijuana actually safer and more effective than prescription painkillers?

Opioid Addiction

Drug abuse and opioid addiction are among the biggest killers of adults in the world. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, somewhere between 26.4 million and 36 million adults abuse opioids around the globe, with accidental overdose deaths from prescription drugs more than tripling in the past two decades. In 2010, accidental opioid overdose resulted in more than 16,000 deaths in the United States alone.

Opioids such as methadone, oxycodone and vicodin are among the most prescribed painkillers. Depending on the state, there are anywhere from 56 to 143 active prescriptions per 100 people.

In addition to the increase in drug-related deaths, opioids are extremely addictive. It’s estimated that some 2.1 million Americans are suffering from substance abuse disorders. Substance abuse disorders remain on the rise, leaving us to wonder if there is a better solution to prescription medication for pain related conditions.

Why Is Marijuana Beneficial?

The marijuana plant itself contains more than 80 different active ingredients known as cannabinoids. Most people are familiar with THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol. This ingredient is the one that offers the most benefits when it comes to pain relief, as well as providing treatments for conditions such as epilepsy and Parkinson’s disease.

One study of the efficacy of THC found that it was particularly effective in treating neuropathic pain. This particular type of pain does not respond to opioid pain relief.

In addition to proving its medical benefits for pain relief, medical marijuana has also proven to be a useful drug for a number of other conditions such as multiple sclerosis, epilepsy, and arthritis. Further, there are many studies taking place across the world to assess the drug’s help with certain cancers and terminal illnesses. 

Another positive benefit to marijuana’s pain relief is the fact that it is not addictive. You also can’t overdose on the drug, which makes its use for treatment all the more intriguing to the medical world. 

Opioids vs. Medical Marijuana

While opioids are effective for pain relief, they are almost always accompanied by unpleasant and sometimes dangerous side effects, including:

  • Dizziness
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Tolerance, requiring higher doses
  • Respiratory depression
  • Physical dependence and addiction

All of these side effects are considered normal and expected during a course of treatment. Medical marijuana also has side effects, as do all drugs. They include short-term memory loss, panic, hallucinations and addiction. Since both have risk of side effects, can medical marijuana be used as an effective painkiller?

Medical Marijuana for Pain Management

One in four Americans reports suffering from some form of chronic pain, affecting more patients than cancer, heart disease, and diabetes combined. There have been studies supporting the efficacy of marijuana in treating pain relief, as well as anecdotal reports and first-hand statements in support of the treatment.

The studies that have been completed have been promising. One such study, by the University of Michigan, found that not only is medical marijuana an effective treatment for pain, but it also reduces the use of opioid medications, therefore reducing the risk of overdose or dependence.

With promising studies like these, it’s not surprising some physicians are recommending medical marijuana in place of traditional painkillers and there are a wide variety of medical conditions that qualify for a medical marijuana prescription. Not only does marijuana offer less risk for addiction and overdose, but it also provides significant relief, making it a competitive solution to chronic pain and other treatable conditions.

A Promising Future

Overall, medical marijuana might turn out to be the most beneficial pain treatment ever. Since medical and recreational use have only been legalized in recent years, it will take a while before long-term studies of the effects and benefits of the drug can be completed. In the meantime, though, medical marijuana is a new and exciting option for people who suffer from chronic pain, epilepsy and a variety of other conditions that normally rely on standard medications and treatments.

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Corinne Keating.JPG

Corinne Keating writes on physical and mental health. When she isn’t doing freelance work or writing for her blog, Why So Well she enjoys running, coffee, and traveling.