EducationHow to take medical cannabis for cancer pain

How to take medical cannabis for cancer pain

9 min read

Lucy MacKinnon

How to take medical cannabis for cancer pain


Cancer pain is one symptom of cancer that can most negatively affect the quality of life of cancer patients, which is why there is so much research being conducted to find new, complementary treatments. An increasing amount of that research is focusing on the potential benefits of medical cannabis, and the results so far are certainly encouraging.

While more research is still needed before any definitive conclusions can be drawn, there have already been numerous studies – some of which we discuss below – that suggest particular compounds in the cannabis sativa L. plant may have beneficial effects on a variety of issues associated with cancer.

In this article, we focus on the potential for cannabinoids to be administered for cancer pain management according to the latest scientific research. We also explain how cannabis works, its legal status as a medical treatment in the UK, as well as the best practices regarding cannabis for cancer pain management.

The compounds and medicinal properties of cannabis

There are certain chemical compounds, called cannabinoids, found in cannabis plants that have been identified as having the potential to reduce the symptom severity of a variety of medical conditions, including cancer pain. In addition, the cannabis plant also contains terpenes and flavonoids, both of which are showing promise in therapeutic settings.

Flavonoids are natural chemicals featuring variable phenolic structures that are found in many types of plants. The same goes for terpenes, which are the aromatic oils created by the cannabis plant and which are responsible for providing its distinctive smell. Both of these compounds can interact with cannabinoids. In cannabis, they work alongside cannabinoids and flavonoids to help create something called the “entourage effect”, which is when the various compounds work together to enhance each other’s effects.

At the time of writing, a total of 113 cannabinoids have been isolated from cannabis, but the two main cannabinoids showing medical potential are tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD). 

Both of these cannabinoids interact with the endocannabinoid system (ECS) in the human body, which is a vast network of cannabinoid receptors, chemical signals (our own endocannabinoids), and the enzymes that both synthesise and breakdown endocannabinoids. THC and CBD both interact with the ECS in different ways – albeit still incompletely understood – and these interactions are thought to be responsible for some of their medicinal properties, including potential beneficial effects on cancer pain.

While they are both cannabinoids, THC and CBD are quite different from each other. THC is the intoxicating cannabinoid that gives cannabis its psychoactive effects, hence why it is classified as a controlled substance. On the other hand, CBD does not cause any psychoactive effects and is instead thought to have a range of therapeutic applications, such as reducing inflammation

Research suggests that these two cannabinoids have benefits for cancer pain management. For example, this study explored the analgesic potential of CBD which can help with cancer pain management, while another study found a link between the use of THC and a reduction in anxiety.

Current approaches to cancer pain management

The current approach to cancer pain management involves various pharmaceutical options, such as anti-inflammatories, over-the-counter pain relievers, and opioids when the pain becomes intense. Relaxation techniques such as breath work, yoga, and meditation may help patients find further pain reduction, as may alternative options such as acupuncture. Counselling often accompanies these treatments, as there is a strong link between how a patient feels emotionally and their experience of physical pain.

Anxiety and the fear of pain also take a heavy toll on the mental health of cancer patients, so psychologists are frequently involved to help patients deal with this mental aspect of cancer pain management.

Adjuvant therapies come in the form of complementary drugs and substances that combine with other drugs to increase the efficacy or potency of the other treatments used to treat cancer pain. These adjuvant therapies can include the likes of antidepressants and anticonvulsants, as well as local anaesthetics, steroids, and bisphosphonates.

Integrative Pain Management

The concept of integrative pain management involves a process of enhancing a particular treatment by incorporating a range of non-pharmacological modalities or methods of treatment. These can be activities including exercise therapy and cognitive behavioural therapy. It can also include the likes of acupuncture and massage, as well as mindfulness practice and yoga.

Integrative pain management is a holistic approach to treatment, and aims to treat the patient as a whole instead of just targeting the particular ailment. The idea behind this concept is to help the body help itself to decrease pain and improve function.

The role of medicinal cannabis in integrative pain management is to improve daily functioning, and potentially even reduce the need for prescription drugs, as the results of this 2021 study suggest.

Research such as this 2020 study, among others, found that cannabinoids produce an analgesic effect by activating certain receptors present in the central nervous system and nerve terminals. It is theorised that cannabinoids block the production of pain and inflammatory mediators, which could be extremely useful as a treatment for cancer pain management.

Medical cannabis is also showing great potential in reducing anxiety. Multiple studies have focused on the potential of CBD and THC in treating anxiety, suggesting that it could be a useful tool for cancer patients who are dealing with a lot of fear and stress around the illness, and its related symptoms, pain included.

There is no doubt that more research is needed, but at the moment, the body of evidence in support of cannabis as a legitimate medical treatment for cancer pain is growing stronger and stronger.

Different forms of cannabis for cancer pain

There are a variety of ways that cancer patients can take cannabis as a medical treatment.

It can be inhaled via a vaporising device, as the vapour will not contain any of the harmful carcinogens found in smoke. Medical cannabis can also be eaten, with the extracted compounds infused in edible gummies or provided in tablet form. Topical cannabis products include skin creams, lotions, balms, and ointments infused with the beneficial compounds absorbed through skin pores. There is also cannabis oil or tincture, which can be sprayed or dropped under the tongue for a fast-acting method.

Regardless of the preferred route of administration, serious consideration should be given to the dosage, as too high a dose may trigger unpleasant side effects such as dizziness or drowsiness. Starting doses should always be low, with the dosage built up slowly in increments until it becomes effective.

No matter the reason for application, the need to seek the advice and guidance of a doctor that is registered to prescribe medicinal cannabis is paramount in order to ensure safety. This is especially true for cancer patients, as the side effects can be more severe depending on the type of cancer and its treatment.

Cannabis has long been viewed by many as nothing more than a recreational substance, but thankfully, the true medicinal qualities of the plant are finally coming to light, and it is increasingly being seen as a legitimate medical treatment with potential therapeutic benefits. 

For cancer pain sufferers specifically, cannabis may prove to be a viable option for symptom relief and management.

The benefits and risks of cannabis for cancer pain

The studies linked above, among many others, have demonstrated that cannabis can help with pain relief while improving sleep, ultimately enhancing the quality of life for cancer patients. The potential benefits of cannabis in managing cancer pain certainly make it an interesting option for cancer patients as an accompaniment to their other treatments.

There are some low-level risks and side effects inherent with medical cannabis administration that cancer patients should be aware of, including the psychoactive effects of THC. Again, seeking the guidance and advice of a doctor is of paramount importance.

Ultimately, the decision to use medical cannabis as a means of pain management for cancer treatment lies with the individual, but it should be done so after careful consideration and under the guidance of a doctor and/or alternative healthcare provider.

Legal and regulatory considerations

Cannabis has been legal for medical use in the UK since 2018. However, it is only legal for certain conditions and must be prescribed by a qualified medical professional.


Cancer patients are often in dire need of pain management treatments, and the current research supports the medical benefits of cannabis for cancer pain management. Although there are some risks and side effects associated with its use, medical cannabis could be a viable option for cancer patients if it is administered in accordance with the guidance of a doctor.

It is up to each patient to weigh the risks and benefits associated with medical cannabis before deciding if this novel, complementary form of treatment is right for them, while also consulting with their healthcare provider and clinical team

If you, or a loved one, require an alternative approach to managing your health condition, Releaf is here to help. Our monthly medical cannabis packages are based on your cannabis prescription, and we offer specialist consultations for medical cannabis and a unique medical cannabis card for protection.

It is important to seek medical advice before starting any new treatments. The patient advisors at Releaf are available to provide expert advice and support. Alternatively, click here to book a consultation with one of our specialist doctors.

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With five years of journalism and healthcare content creation under her belt, Lucy strives to improve medical cannabis awareness and access in the UK by producing high quality, credible content.

Our articles are written by experts and reviewed by medical professionals or compliance specialists. Adhering to stringent sourcing guidelines, we reference peer-reviewed studies and scholarly research. View our editorial policy.

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