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Managing chronic pain with cannabinoids

Cannabinoids come from the cannabis (marijuana) plant. They’re sometimes used in medicines to treat different health conditions. The cannabis plant can also be used as a medicine when it’s smoked, vapourized, eaten, or made into a cream.

What we know about cannabinoids to manage pain

There isn’t a lot of research that looks at how cannabinoids help manage long-lasting (chronic) pain. We know there are receptors in our body that work with cannabinoids. We also know that our body makes natural cannabinoids. What we don’t fully understand is exactly what they do or how to use them to help manage pain.

We know that cannabinoids can help you feel less sick to your stomach (nausea) and help prevent you from throwing up (vomiting). We think they may also help you sleep better. There are a few studies that suggest they might help some kinds of nerve pain.

Most experts say that cannabinoids should only be used as a last option to manage pain, after you’ve tried most other kinds of pain medicine.

No pain medicine can get rid of all chronic pain. When you use cannabinoids for chronic pain, the goal is to lessen your pain enough so it’s easier for you to do your day-to-day activities.

Forms of cannabinoids

Cannabinoids are pills that you can get from the pharmacy. You can also get cannabinoids in the form of plants, herbs, or oils from licensed cannabis producers or specialized stores.

Possible side effects of cannabinoids

No matter what form you use, cannabinoids have some possible side effects. Possible side effects include:

  • feeling dizzy
  • dry mouth
  • severe vomiting that keeps happening
  • feeling “high”
  • headache
  • blurry eyesight (vision)
  • fast heart rate
  • changes in blood pressure
  • feeling sleepy
  • problems with memory
  • depression, anxiety, or hallucinations (seeing or hearing things that aren’t there)

There isn’t enough research to know all of the possible side effects and long-term effects of using cannabis.

Who should not take cannabinoids

Do not take cannabinoids if you’re pregnant or have:

  • high blood pressure
  • heart disease
  • liver disease
  • a history of alcohol use disorder, opioid use disorder, or other addictions
  • untreated mood problems
  • family history of hallucinations (seeing or hearing things that aren’t there)

Interactions with other medicines

Cannabinoids can interact with other medicines. Please check with your healthcare provider or pharmacist to make sure it’s safe for you to take them.

Cannabinoids can interact with the following medicines:

  • warfarin (a type of blood thinner)
  • some antidepressants
  • some blood pressure medicines
  • opioid medicines (like oxycodone or hydromorphone)
  • benzodiazepine medicines (like lorazepam or clonazepam)
  • clobazam

How and where to get cannabinoids

While healthcare providers don’t prescribe cannabis, they can sign an authorization form that allows you to buy cannabis directly from a licensed producer. It means you can also grow your own small supply.

You can also buy cannabis directly from specialized stores. You don’t need an authorization form signed by your healthcare provider to buy cannabis from a specialized store.

More research needs to be done to make sure cannabinoids are a safe and useful way to manage chronic pain before they are recommended for medical use.

More information

The Health Canada website has information about the rules and regulations for using medical cannabis.

Current as of: January 5, 2021

Author: Chronic Pain Program, Alberta Health Services