Regular marijuana users just got good news: Unlike opioids, cannabis doesn’t increase pain sensitivity, according to a new study from the University of British Columbia.
The study offers a glimpse into the largely unexplored effects of routine cannabis use on pain tolerance. The research indicates that marijuana can act as an alternative to opioids, which are highly addictive and have led to the overdose epidemic ripping through America..
“Recent years have seen an increase in the adoption of cannabinoid medicines, which have demonstrated effectiveness for the treatment of chronic pain,” says Michelle St. Pierre, the study’s author and a psychology researcher at UBC Okanagan, “However, the extent to which frequent cannabis use influences sensitivity to acute pain has not been systematically examined.”
When patients use opioids, the drug lowers their pain tolerance, prompting them to take higher and higher doses. Yet, to the delight of the researchers, the new study found that patients can use marijuana without experiencing the same effect.
“Increases in pain sensitivity with opioids can really complicate an already tough situation; given increasing uptake of cannabis-based pain medications, it’s a relief that we didn’t identify a similar pattern with cannabinoids,” stated the study’s co-author Zach Walsh, who leads the UBC Therapeutic Recreational and Problematic Substance Use Lab.
The study compared people who abstained from cannabis use to those who used it more than three times a week. Study participants took part in a cold-pressor task test, in which they held a hand and forearm in ice-water to assess pain levels.
Ultimately, the test showed that unlike long-term opioid consumption, regular cannabis use does not increase pain sensitivity.
“Our results suggest frequent cannabis use did not seem to be associated with elevated sensitivity to experimental pain in a manner that can occur in opioid therapy,” noted St. Pierre, “This is an important distinction that care providers and patients should consider when selecting options for pain management. These findings are particularly relevant in light of recent reports of opioid overprescribing and high rates of pain in the population, as it suggests that cannabis may not carry the same risk of hyperalgesia as opioids.”