EducationIs medical cannabis a viable treatment for back pain?

Is medical cannabis a viable treatment for back pain?

9 min read

Sam North

Is medical cannabis a viable treatment for back pain?


Despite advancements in understanding back pain, the lack of effective and lasting treatment options remains a significant challenge. Managing non-surgical back pain has been identified as a primary contributor to the current issues surrounding the overprescription of opioids. Additionally, post-operative pain management poses a complex challenge for patients undergoing spine surgery.

Similar to other surgeries, spine surgery can result in musculoskeletal tissue damage that causes debilitating pain. Inadequate pain control not only causes distress to patients but also hinders their early and optimal post-surgical recovery.

Medical cannabis, a plant with potent therapeutic properties, is increasingly recognized for its potential to alleviate the symptoms of a variety of health conditions, including back pain and chronic inflammation. Prior to November 1, 2018, the administration of medical cannabis remained illegal in the United Kingdom. However, a change in legislation now allows specialist doctors through both the NHS and private clinics to prescribe cannabis for medical purposes.

While it's now legal, the prescription of medical cannabis is still a sensitive matter. Thus, it's imperative that only certified healthcare practitioners or specialized programs provide prescriptions for its administration.

Right here, we delve into the specifics of how medical cannabis may serve as a potential solution for chronic back pain, as well as discuss the associated risks. We'll also provide you with all the relevant information on how to begin your medical cannabis journey legally, and safely.

Understanding the mechanisms of medical cannabis in alleviating back pain

For the vast majority of patients who experience back pain issues, chronic or acute, inflammation is most often the underlying cause. Inflamed tissues, cells, and blood vessels can lead to pain and discomfort in many areas of the body, including the back.

Medical cannabis has long been applied as a form of natural medicine to help ease the burden that increased and aggressive inflammation places on the body. Inflammation itself is a vital component in the human immune system, signalling the body to boost its healing powers. However, when inflammation is left unchecked and unregulated, it can lead to significant pain and discomfort.

Cannabis contains what are referred to as cannabinoids, or more specifically, phytocannabinoids. These compounds have been proven, through clinical studies and peer-reviewed research, to offer the capability of binding to specific receptors in the human body, which then helps to regulate inflammation.

Which receptors?

The science shows that cannabinoids interact with both the CB1 and CB2 receptors, which are part of the endocannabinoid system (ECS) (along with some other receptors, such as PPAR). The ECS is responsible for a variety of functions, both physiological and psychological, and is considered to be the “master regulatory” system in humans.

Cannabinoid receptors are found throughout the body, including various parts of the brain, organs, connective tissues, and immune cells.

The ECS is made up of:

  • Endocannabinoids – cannabinoids produced by the human body, which act as neurotransmitters.
  • Receptors – These bind with endocannabinoids and other cannabinoids to produce a wide range of physiological functions.
  • Enzymes – These synthesise, and actively break down endocannabinoids and cannabinoids following their use, to prevent overstimulation of the system.

CB1 receptors are mostly located in the brain and are believed to be more closely associated with psychological effects, while CB2 receptors are found in the peripheral nervous system and have been known to influence inflammation.

The impact that cannabinoids have on each of these receptors is a complex process. However, it’s believed that they interact with both types of receptors to facilitate anti-inflammatory and pain-relieving effects. This interaction may help to regulate and reduce inflammation, ultimately leading to a reduction in pain.

Research relating to medical cannabis and back pain

A recent UK research paper, published in the Expert Review of Neurotherapeutics journal, is the first study we will discuss as it directly evaluates the efficacy of medical cannabis on back pain.

A total of 348 patients were treated with medical cannabis oils, 36 with dried flower, and 377 with a combination of both. The primary outcomes measured were changes in patient-reported outcome measures (PROMs) at 1, 3, and 6 months compared to baseline. The report concludes that patients with chronic pain who took a range of cannabis products reported reduced pain, better sleep, and overall quality of life.

The next paper, titled “The Efficacy of Cannabis in Reducing Back Pain: A Systematic Review”, again shows that medical cannabis is a potential treatment for back pain in patients with inflammation and pain issues. This review looked at 4 relevant studies, with the results showing that medical cannabis is effective in treating back pain and comes with “acceptable side effect profile”.

While both of these pieces of scientific research show promising results, there is still an obvious need for further research into the effects of medical cannabis when it comes to treating back pain specifically. With the current wave of medical cannabis legislation sweeping the globe, researchers are finally being granted the access they need to begin conducting the necessary studies, and so in the near future, we may have even more evidence to support the use of medical cannabis for back pain.

When it comes to more general medical research regarding cannabis a pain reliever and anti-inflammatory, there is a myriad of studies we can delve into.

The results of Transdermal cannabidiol reduces inflammation and pain-related behaviours in a rat model of arthritis” were pretty conclusive. CBD, or cannabidiol, is a non-psychoactive cannabinoid found in cannabis (and hemp), and has gone through a truly meteoric rise in the past few years here in the UK. The study found that “Transdermal CBD gel significantly reduced joint swelling, limb posture scores as a rating of spontaneous pain, immune cell infiltration and thickening of the synovial membrane in a dose-dependent manner.”

The paper Cannabinoids as novel anti-inflammatory drugsfound that cannabinoids, including Δ9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), have been found to have anti-inflammatory properties and can regulate the immune system. It concluded that “The endocannabinoid system is involved in immunoregulation, and manipulation of endocannabinoids or use of exogenous cannabinoids can be a potential treatment for inflammatory disorders”.

So, as we can see from the above research, medical cannabis certainly holds great potential as a treatment for back pain, and there is a wealth of research that shows its effectiveness in treating inflammation and chronic pain. With that said, the need for further scientific inquiry is paramount, and this research should be conducted in order to provide an even clearer picture.

It is important to note that medical cannabis should always be administered under the guidance and advice of a trained, registered, and experienced medical cannabis prescribing doctor.

What are the current conventional treatment options for back pain?

There are several conventional treatments for back pain. However, the treatment options offered depend on the nature and cause of back pain.

Conventional treatments include the following.

  • Medications, including pain relievers, muscle relaxants, topical pain creams, opioids, and antidepressants, can be used to manage pain.
  • Physical therapy
  • Surgery,
  • Non-surgical procedures like cortisone injections are also options for treatment.

Several complementary and alternative medicine treatments are available for both acute and chronic back pain.

These include:

  • Chiropractic care
  • Acupuncture
  • Massage
  • Yoga

What are the practical benefits of medical cannabis for back pain?

This study explains how cannabis can reduce muscle spasms in the back, reduce nausea and vomiting from prescription painkillers, and more.

On top of this, medical cannabis may help sufferers of back pain by:

  • Improving sleep: Cannabis has been found to be effective in improving the quality of sleep, which is often disrupted by pain.
  • Reducing stress and anxiety: A study in the Journal of Affective Disorders found that cannabis can reduce stress and anxiety-related conditions.
  • Reducing inflammation: As discussed earlier, research shows that cannabinoids interact with both the CB1 and CB2 receptors to reduce inflammation and pain.
  • Improving mood: Several studies have shown that cannabis can have positive effects on mood, potentially helping those suffering from back pain-related depression.

The potential risks and side effects of medical cannabis for back pain

While the negative side effects related to medical cannabis administration are typically minimal and usually subside as soon as your medication wears off, the need to be aware of the potential risks should not be overlooked.

The most common side effects of medical cannabis are:

  • Dry mouth
  • Dizziness
  • Sleepiness
  • Nausea and Vomiting

It is important to note that all medications come with risks, so it is advised to consult your doctor before taking any form of medication. Additionally, as with any other medication, the dosage should be carefully controlled and monitored to ensure that the most optimal treatment is being used.

Medical cannabis also has the potential to negatively interact with certain pharmaceuticals, so always be sure to let your doctor know if you are taking any other medications. Your doctor will be able to advise you on the best course of action and may decide that cannabis is not the best treatment for your condition.

If you experience any unwanted side effects, it’s recommended that you report any adverse effects to your clinical team.

Can you get medical cannabis for back pain?

Here in the UK, patients who have tried a range of conventional therapeutic options and failed to find relief may be eligible for medical cannabis treatment.

Medical cannabis can only be prescribed by specialist doctors who are registered to do so. Your GP may be able to refer you to a specialist doctor, and here at Releaf, we can provide access to experienced medical cannabis doctors with one simple appointment.

Releaf's tailored monthly packages and unique medical cannabis card give patients peace of mind when it comes to accessing the treatment they need without any worry about stigma. It is important that everyone has access to the right medication for their condition, and Releaf is here to help make that happen.

Final thoughts

While the medical cannabis field of research is still in its infancy, the evidence we have so far suggests that medical cannabis could be a potential treatment option for those suffering from both acute and chronic back pain and can certainly be considered when conventional treatments have failed.

The need for natural, non-addictive pain-relieving options has never been more pronounced, and medical cannabis appears to be a promising solution for those looking for alternative treatments. As always, it is critical to speak with an experienced medical cannabis doctor before making any changes to your current treatment plan. 

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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Sam North, a seasoned writer with over five years' experience and expertise in medicinal cannabis, brings clarity to complex concepts, focusing on education and informed use.

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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