For those with a life-limiting illness and who need special help, medicinal cannabis can provide an extraordinary comfort.

While there are a number of common symptoms associated with palliative care that feel debilitating and perhaps insurmountable at times, there is a raft of treatment options available to help improve a patient’s quality of life - of which medicinal cannabis may be one.
At home on hospice with wife

What is palliative care?

Palliative care is a broad term covering a variety of treatment options offered to patients with a life-limiting illness - that is, an illness doctors believe cannot be cured, and may at some point result in the patient’s passing.

One of the great things about palliative care is that often it can be offered anywhere. While there are many specific facilities around Australia for palliative care patients, many more continue to live at home or with their families. Of course, it all depends on the patient’s needs.

Palliative care does not generally belong to one specific medical specialist. In the course of treatment, a patient may encounter nurses, GPs, social workers and specialists for specific needs – diet, pain management, physiotherapy, occupational therapy and so on.

In Australia, Palliative Care Australia is the leading organisation for this type of care. It can provide assistance finding service providers, and offers a lot of advice on how to seek the right treatment.

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What does palliative care involve?

Palliative care is an holistic treatment, which means it generally takes into account multiple facets of a patient’s life - trying to help the whole, both body and mind, rather than a specific problem.

As such, palliative care looks different for every individual. It will include whatever is required to improve a person’s quality of life, including:

  1. Medication.
  2. Help getting back to work (occupational therapy).
  3. Advice on pain management.
  4. Other lifestyle advice (diet, exercise, staying social).
  5. Making critical decisions about care.

Symptoms that may impact someone in palliative care

As we discussed, palliative care treats numerous aspects of a person’s health, however there are a few common symptoms among patients undergoing this type of treatment.
  • Chronic pain (that is, pain which can be felt most days of the week and lasts three to six months or more).
  • Trouble with movement and exercise.
  • Eating and digestive issues.
  • Fatigue and trouble sleeping.
  • Struggles with mental health, including depression or anxiety.
A black senior woman with cancer is wearing a scarf on her head. She is sitting at home in her living room. She is smiling thoughtfully at the camera. She is full of gratitude and hope for recovery.

Treating those in palliative care with medicinal cannabis

Cannabis has been used for thousands of years in a variety of medical capacities, but only recently have modern researchers given it more attention.

Preliminary evidence in a number of areas suggest medicinal cannabis may have positive effects on some of the symptoms associated with palliative care patients.

Spasticity: In one particular paper, researchers gathered sixteen young palliative care patients (median age 12-13) to determine the value of treating their spasticity with a 2.5% THC oil solution. After an average treatment period of 181 days, researchers noted ‘promising effects’, including the marked improvement or abolishment of numerous patients’ spasticity, and no serious side effects. Source

Chronic pain: Evidence from a variety of studies have link ed medicinal cannabis in its various forms with effective chronic pain treatment. In particular, the studies we’ve seen found evidence to suggest that medicinal cannabis could help treat migraines, neuropathic pain and fibromyalgia. Improvements included a reduction in the number of migraines felt per month, a reduction in pain intensity, and enhanced relaxation and feelings of well-being. For more information, see our Chronic Pain page.

Advanced cancer pain: For those with advanced cancer, pain and other side effects can be both distracting and debilitating. But medicinal cannabis may have benefits here, too. For example, one paper found cannabis to be “highly effective” at helping older-aged palliative care patients cut down their pain symptoms. THC:CBD extract (a cannabis compound) was also found in another study to reduce chronic pain in patients who had found opioids inadequate, while more reports suggest it may help control chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting. For more information, see our Cancer page.

Appetite: US researchers administered 2.5 mg of a cannabis compound twice daily to 139 patients with AIDS-related anorexia. They found that this treatment could be associated with increased appetite, improved mood, decreased nausea and more stable weight. Plus, another study – this one from Canada – tested delta-9 THC (another cannabis compound) with adult advanced cancer patients, all of whom were suffering appetite issues. Evidence suggests that treatment enhanced their pre-meal appetite, proportion of calories consumed as protein, and chemosensory perception (food ‘tasting better’). It could also be linked to improved sleep quality and relaxation. Source 1, Source 2

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 study. 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.