Chronic pain is a condition affecting as many as one in five Australians over the age of 45 years.

It can be effectively managed with a variety of both medicinal and lifestyle treatments, including analgesics (painkillers) and pain management practice. Preliminary evidence suggests there may be benefits to using medicinal cannabis to address chronic pain, also.
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What is chronic pain?

Chronic pain is the name given to a variety of persistent pains that feel like they won’t go away. Generally, doctors suggest that ‘chronic’ pain is an ache which can be felt most days of the week for a period lasting longer than three to six months.

Acute versus chronic pain: You might also hear the term ‘acute’ pain. Acute pain often comes on fast and can be quite sharp, but it generally doesn’t linger if you treat the underlying cause. For example, a broken bone is an example of acute pain.

Cropped shot of a young businessman experiencing back pain while working at his desk

How does chronic pain impact someone’s life?

People with chronic pain may find their life impacted as much as six times more than someone without, as it can impact all aspects of life. For example, common impacts include:
  • Trouble sleeping.
  • Difficulty with physical tasks (such as chores and exercise).
  • Struggles with mental health.
  • Complications due to long-term use of painkillers, such as opioids.
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Common causes of chronic pain

Chronic pain is quite a broad term, with the conditioning arising from a few different underlying problems. We’ve listed some of the more common ones to help you understand.
  1. Injury
  2. Surgery
  3. Musculoskeletal conditions (osteoporosis, arthritis)
  4. Advanced cancer
  5. Endometriosis
  6. Migraines

In some cases, there may also be no apparent physical cause.

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Common treatments for chronic pain

Sometimes it feels like chronic pain has no end, but there are a wide variety of treatments available to help individuals overcome their pain - whether by reducing the pain entirely or learning to ignore its symptoms.

If you or a loved one are feeling the impacts of chronic pain, your GP will likely recommend a mixture of both medical and lifestyle treatments, depending on the severity of your condition. Painkillers such as anti-inflammatories and (in very specific cases) opioids are an option, but they can’t necessarily help over the long-term, which is where you must make changes to your lifestyle. Long-term use of painkillers (opioids in particular) can have negative consequences, such as risk of addiction, mental health troubles and developing a tolerance.

Lifestyle treatments for chronic pain
  • Pain management: Learning to accept the pain as a part of your life for now, and training yourself in pain management.
  • Mindfulness and distraction: Learning to avoid focusing on your pain, and engaging in activities you enjoy in order to live life to the fullest.
  • Exercise and gentle movement: Using movement to improve muscle strength and reduce stiffness.
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Using medicinal cannabis to treat chronic pain

Medicinal cannabis has been used to treat pain relief in some cultures for thousands of years, and preliminary research suggests it may have genuine pain relieving properties for modern use too.

Migraines: The University of Colorado reviewed over a hundred patients who experienced frequent migraines, and who were treated daily with a mixture of inhaled and edible cannabis for four years. The majority noted that their headaches per month dropped from around 10-11 migraines to just four or five. A number more patients felt it helped prevent migraines as well as treat them as they arose. Source

Neuropathic pain: In a McGill University study, researchers found that inhaling 25mg of 9.4% THC medicinal cannabis three times daily for five days reduced the intensity of pain in patients with post-traumatic or post-surgical neuropathic pain. The treatment also improved their ability to sleep and the quality of their sleep. Source

Fibromyalgia: Scientists in Israel obtained data from two hospitals in the country that had treated fibromyalgia patients with around 26mg medicinal cannabis for just less than a year. All identified patients reported “significant improvement” in every parameter of the researchers’ questionnaire, and some stopped taking other medications as a result. Another study also looked at fibromyalgia, this one from Spain, and found that cannabis offered a statistically significant reduction of pain and stiffness, enhanced relaxation, and increased feelings of well-being. Source 1, Source 2

Advanced cancer pain: Two different types of medicinal cannabis (delta-9 THC (27 mg/mL) and cannabidiol (25 mg/mL)) were offered in this Virginia Commonwealth University paper to advanced cancer patients with uncontrolled pain. Some patients – researchers suspected mostly patients who had until that point received lower doses of opioids – reported “significant benefits” from their treatment. Source

Anecdotal evidence: A collection of US researchers surveyed just less than 1,000 patients who had been taking medicinal cannabis, most of whom had been taking it for chronic pain. They were asked “How effective is medical cannabis in treating your symptoms or conditions?”, and the average respondent noted 74.6/100 (with 0 meaning “no relief” and 100 meaning “complete relief”). The pain relief was felt most by those with trauma, menstrual or cancer-related pains – although patients who fell into the other categories still said their pain relief was above 70/100. Source

Limitations of medicinal cannabis research

At the time of writing, research on medicinal cannabis is in its early stages. In medicine, we like to see a large number of studies conducted over long periods of time (with large numbers of participants) to make definitive statements about the efficacy of certain treatments. As yet, medicinal cannabis has not reached this stage, although there is a significant amount of preliminary research coming out that warrants more large-scale studies. Patients should always talk to a health professional for advice on their unique requirements before making any decisions about their treatment options.

Who to talk to next

Wondering where to turn to next? If you’d like to speak with a medical professional who knows the research on medicinal cannabis and can offer you guidance on whether it’s right for your needs, consider booking a digital GP appointment using our telehealth service today.