How Does Cannabis Relieve Pain?

The use of cannabis to relieve pain is controversial, not just for legal reasons but also because of the conflicting research findings with regards to its efficacy. A recent study by Martin De Vita et al., from Syracuse University in New York, looked into the effects of cannabis on pain. They selected, reviewed and analysed studies that had researched the effect of cannabis on experimentally induced pain. De Vita et al. conclude that “although the cannabinoids examined in this review may prevent the onset of laboratory-induced pain by increasing pain thresholds, they do not appear to reduce the intensity of experimental pain that is already being experienced. Instead, these substances make experimental pain feel less unpleasant and more tolerable, suggesting a notable influence on affective processes. The cumulative research synthesized in this review has helped characterize how cannabis and cannabinoids affect different dimensions of pain reactivity.

There are 2 components to pain: the purely sensory component and the affective (emotional) component. It’s been known for a while that opioids and our endogenous opioid pathways play an important role in sensory pain perception. It now appears that cannabis and our endogenous cannabinoid pathways play a part in the emotional dimension of pain. Interestingly, mindfulness meditation, which has proven effects on pain relief, doesn’t use opioid pathways. In fact, the mechanisms underlying mindfulness meditation’s pain-relieving effects are as yet unknown. Could it be possible that they employ cannabinoid receptors and pathways?