Opioids vs. Marijuana for Pain Relief

Opioid Pills
Photo by: Kimberly Boyles/Shutterstock

Marijuana clearly has many medical uses, but pain relief isn't one that quickly comes to mind. Not only is marijuana an effective pain reliever, but many people believe it may be the answer to our current opioid crisis. Marijuana may work on its own or alongside opioid painkillers to relieve pain as well or better than opioids alone. When patients can rely less on opioids, they reduce their chances of becoming addicted.

A Closer Look At These Prescription Medicines

The THC in marijuana works much in the way opioids work – as an analgesic. As such, both medications block pain signals in the central nervous system. The brain has receptors for both cannabinoids and opioids, but they are different receptors. THC binds to CB1 and CB2 receptors in the endocannabinoid system and opioids bind to opioid receptors.
Patients who used cannabis for pain reduced their opioid use by 64 percent, according to a study published in the Journal of Pain. A Therapeutics and Clinical Risk Management ?review concludes that medical marijuana is safe and effective for treating peripheral neuropathic pain, cancer pain, and pain from rheumatoid arthritis.

When given the option, patients seem to prefer using marijuana instead of opioids to treat pain. A Cannabis and Cannabinoid Research study found that 81 percent of participants who were taking opioids for pain agreed that medical marijuana alone provided more pain relief than taking opioids alongside marijuana. This study also concluded that participants were able to reduce their reliance on opioids by using marijuana. This gives hope that we may eventually see more medically-assisted treatment programs for opioid addiction that include marijuana.

Side Effects of Marijuana and Opioids

There are side effects to both pain-relieving options, but only one is likely to result in death. In fact, the CDC estimates that opioids kill 115 Americans daily through overdose.

Opioid side effects

  • Dependence
  • Increased tolerance
  • Overdose fatality
  • Lung and heart problems
  • Sedation
  • Low sex drive
  • Sleep apnea
  • Constipation
  • Dry mouth

Marijuana side effects 

  • Dry mouth
  • Hunger
  • High moods
  • Red eyes
  • Sleepiness
  • Blurred vision

Heath Benefits of Marijuana

Marijuana and Stethoscope
Photo by: nhungboon/Shutterstock
Many studies have linked marijuana to many amazing health benefits, including treatment for depression, anxiety, eating disorders, Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, and pain.

Opioids have one major benefit, and that is to relieve pain. They have proven to be very effective at pain relief, but intense side effects may cause anyone to rethink taking them.

Fatalities From Opioids and Marijuana 

We have a very dangerous opioid epidemic on our hands. The CDC reports that opioid overdoses have taken 64 thousand lives in 2016, and that number seems to be on the rise. For the first time in history, opioids now kill more people than breast cancer.

You don't hear much about marijuana drug overdose deaths because they generally don't happen. The number of people who overdosed in 2016 was a whopping zero. Still, there are deaths associated with marijuana use that we must consider. The publication The Health Effects of Cannabis and Cannabinoids outlines the risks associated with marijuana use. Risks include increased chance of being in a motor vehicle accident, increased accidental overdose injuries with children, and a shorter lifespan.

Addictiveness of Opioids 

Our current opioid epidemic is evidence that opioids are highly addictive. Even those who would otherwise avoid recreational drugs are becoming addicted and losing everything, sometimes even their lives.

Pot proponents often claim that marijuana is a non-addictive medicine, but this isn't exactly true. A JAMA Psychiatry study shows that 30 percent of people who use marijuana may have some degree of marijuana use disorder. However, a Drug and Alcohol Dependence study found that people who begin using in their youth are much more likely to become addicted than those who first use marijuana as adults.

Chronic Pain and Tolerance 

Due to its intensely addictive nature, opioid medications should never be prescribed for chronic pain. As a person takes opioids over time, their tolerance will grow, and they’ll need higher doses to achieve the same effect. The danger of taking opioids increases exponentially as the doses increase.

Tolerance is also an issue with marijuana, but it's not as much of a concern when people aren't dying of overdoses at alarming rates (or even at all). In order to die of a marijuana overdose, you would need incredibly high blood levels. You'd likely have to eat pounds of high-THC strains like The White or Ghost OG. And who would even want to do that?

People who use marijuana may be just as likely to build up a tolerance as those who use opioids, but without a risk of overdose death, it's not as much of a concern. Also, one study suggests that a pot-smoker's tolerance may even return to near-normal levels after just four weeks of abstinence.

This may be why marijuana is currently prescribed for many chronic conditions including multiple sclerosis and cancer.

Conclusion

Although more research must be done on the topic, the studies we have collected are promising for the cannabis movement. Marijuana may be an effective pain-reliever that may one day replace many opioid prescriptions.