Medical cannabis shown to reduce pain in cancer patients - study

The peer-reviewed study found that for most cancer patients, pain levels improved significantly and other symptoms also decreased.

An employee checks cannabis plants at a medical marijuana plantation in northern Israel March 21, 2017 (photo credit: REUTERS/NIR ELIAS)
An employee checks cannabis plants at a medical marijuana plantation in northern Israel March 21, 2017
(photo credit: REUTERS/NIR ELIAS)

Medical cannabis appears to be highly effective in the battle against cancer pain, according to a Technion study published on Friday in Frontiers in Pain Research.

According to the Health Ministry, Israel has the highest rate of cannabis patients in relation to the population, despite it being classified as a "dangerous drug" and not being officially registered as a medication.

The peer-reviewed study found that for most cancer patients, pain levels improved significantly and other symptoms also decreased with the use of medical cannabis. Oncology patients commonly suffer from depression, anxiety and insomnia in addition to pain during treatment. Suffering through such symptoms worsens a patient's quality of life, and can even negatively affect the prognosis. 

“Traditionally, cancer-related pain is mainly treated by opioid analgesics, but most oncologists perceive opioid treatment as hazardous, so alternative therapies are required,” explained author David Meiri, an assistant professor at the Technion Israel Institute of Technology.

Opioids are highly effective pain relievers, but they can come with uncomfortable side effects. More importantly, many of them, particularly the synthetic opioid fentanyl, are highly addictive and can lead to death by overdose.  

Bystanders watch as a Cataldo Ambulance EMT carries to the ambulance a man in his 40's who was found unresponsive after overdosing on an opioid in the Boston suburb of Salem, Massachusetts, US, August 9, 2017. (credit: REUTERS/BRIAN SNYDER)Bystanders watch as a Cataldo Ambulance EMT carries to the ambulance a man in his 40's who was found unresponsive after overdosing on an opioid in the Boston suburb of Salem, Massachusetts, US, August 9, 2017. (credit: REUTERS/BRIAN SNYDER)

Researchers had the help of certified oncologists who issued medical cannabis licenses to their patients. They also referred their patients to the study and reported on their symptoms and disease characteristics. 

“Patients completed anonymous questionnaires before starting treatment, and again at several time points during the following six months," explained study co-author Gil Bar-Sela, associate professor at the Ha'Emek Medical Center Afula. "We gathered data on a number of factors, including pain measures, analgesics consumption, cancer symptom burden, sexual problems and side effects,” he said.

Upon analyzing the data, researchers found that the patients' had noticeably improved and, critically, their opioid use was significantly reduced. Nearly half of the patients stopped all other pain medication after six months of medicinal cannabis treatment. 

“Although our study was very comprehensive and presented additional perspectives on medical cannabis, the sex, age, and ethnicity, as well as cancer types and the stage of cancer meant the variety of patients in our study was wide-ranging," Meiri concluded. "Therefore, future studies should investigate the level of effectiveness of medicinal cannabis in specific subgroups of cancer patients with more shared characteristics.”