Migraine headaches can be debilitating and especially tough to treat. With the increasing decriminalization of cannabis in the US, more people are looking to cannabis as a natural method of pain relief.
It is clear that growing interest in cannabis is not unsubstantiated. For example, the FDA has approved three cannabis-related products, though synthetic, that are used to treat severe nausea, vomiting, and loss of appetite.
But what does the research have to say about cannabis and migraines? Currently, research in this area is significantly limited, but here’s what we know so far.
Migraines are a neurological condition characterized by pain usually isolated to one area of the head. The severity of pain can range from a pulsing sensation to severe, throbbing pain. Some sufferers may even experience impaired vision, in what is known as a “retinal migraine.” Sufferers often note that a migraine can also bring about feelings of nausea, sensitivity to light and sound, as well as vomiting. It is said that 1 in 4 households in America includes someone with a migraine. Those afflicted are most commonly between the ages of 18 and 44.
According to the Journal of Headache and Pain, migraines are the second leading cause of disability in those under 50. Sadly, current treatments for migraines are not always effective, and some pain medications may cause a myriad of side effects in their own right.
Consequently, many have turned to medicinal cannabis as a means to alleviate their painful migraines. One cross-sectional study, in particular, demonstrated that those who are given medical cannabis had a greater reduction in symptoms than the non-cannabis group. This research shows a promising future for medicinal cannabis, though replications of the study are needed to be sure.
How cannabis works for migraines
Within cannabis, there are over 60 cannabinoid compounds that all interact with our endocannabinoid system. THC and CBD are most commonly associated with the effects of cannabis. THC and CBD (along with other cannabinoids) interact with our endocannabinoid system (ECS), which is a network of neurotransmitters responsible for a variety of roles in our bodies. Within the ECS are cannabinoid receptors, endocannabinoid receptors, and enzymes to help with their maintenance.
Cannabinoids like THC and CBD have been thought to help with nausea, muscle spasms, and other health problems. THC is the compound that produces most of the symptoms synonymous with cannabis such as “high” and relaxed feelings. CBD on the other hand has widely been associated with more medicinal properties, such as the alleviation of pain.
THC is often responsible for the many stigmatized ideas of cannabis use such as paranoia and psychosis, whereas CBD does not cause intoxication, and is thought to have a protective effect.
Understanding about the interaction between migraines and cannabinoids is lacking significantly, though one study proposes that there may be a link between neurotransmitters in the brain. They comment that the connection between cannabinoids and serotonin in the brain may be the reason cannabis demonstrates a therapeutic outcome. There are no clinical trials however to confirm this.
Does cannabis work for migraines?
Research in this area is growing significantly, and there have been reports that cannabis can both alleviate the pain of migraines and prevent them from occurring in the first place. Research shows that CBD and THC could help with pain and migraines, but more research is needed to be sure.
In an observational study done in 2016, researchers looked into the effects of medical cannabis on migraine frequencies. The four-year study found that in patients given a daily dose for migraine prevention, the monthly frequency of migraines dropped by almost 50%. This demonstrates that there may be an interaction between cannabis use and migraine prevention.
There may also be a significant link between THC specific to this interaction. In one clinical trial, they used both THC+CBD and CBD to see the effects on migraine attacks. They noted that the outcomes of the combined THC+CBD group had slightly better results and a 40.4% reduction in attacks. The study however did not find any link with acute treatment, and further replications of this study have yet to be done.
As for CBD in the management of migraines, there is even less research looking into this. Anecdotally, some have commented that CBD can be more pain-relieving, though not much help in the frequency of attacks. Generally speaking, CBD is often used by individuals suffering from chronic pain. One study conducted in 2008 found that almost 25% of chronic pain sufferers noticed an improvement in symptoms with CBD, and a further 50% with THC+CBD.
Is cannabis legal?
This is probably one of the most important questions to have answered and it depends on where you live. In the US, cannabis is illegal in many states, however, an equally large number of states allow its usage both medicinally and recreationally.
Other states may only allow the medicinal use of cannabis. Additionally, under federal law cannabis remains illegal. If you think you might be interested in trying cannabis, it is a good idea to be up to date with your state’s laws and regulations to avoid serious trouble.
As mentioned above, while cannabis usage has become more and more decriminalized in the states, there is still much research on its effects to be done. Apart from anecdotal evidence and animal studies, there is a severe lack of information regarding its effects. It is important to stay informed about your decision and engage with dispensaries that are both legal and trustworthy.
Short term side effects of cannabis
Depending on the method of delivery, for example, smoking, drinking, or eating, the side effects may be quicker or slower. When smoked, THC enters the bloodstream quickly through the lungs, leading to a higher risk of experiencing these symptoms.
- Trouble thinking
- Dry mouth
- Decreased blood pressure
- Slowed coordination
- Changes in appetite
- Paranoia (high doses)
- Psychosis (high doses)
- Delusions (high doses)
These effects usually only last for 30 minutes to an hour for those who smoke, however, they can last up to hours after the consumption of edibles depending on the dose. The FDA has yet to approve or advise on appropriate dosing and given that cannabis may also have interactions with certain medications, it is always best to talk with your doctor to be on the safe side.
Long term side effects of cannabis
Research regarding the use of cannabis and its long-term effects is limited. Clinical use of cannabis was dropped in 1937, though it has a long history of medicinal uses in the past.
Since cannabis use has only now been re-popularized, it is hard to say what the long-term side effects are, and whether they outweigh the supposed good.
Current research is looking into the deleterious effects of cannabis use. One study looked at individuals who started using cannabis at a young age (under 18). Individuals who used cannabis in their early years had reduced memory, thinking, and learning compared to those who didn’t. It was noted however that these delays did not improve after stopping cannabis use, and they believe there may be other factors such as genetics that caused this difference.
Research has been looking into the link between cannabis usage and the risk of psychosis and schizophrenia. One study found that there may be similarities but commented that there is no evidence establishing a “cause and effect” relationship between the two.
One review found that the risk of cannabis dependence was 9%. While it is significantly lower than that of heroin and cocaine, there is some reason for concern. They also found that around a third of cannabis users displayed cannabis use disorder (abuse/dependence), a slight reduction in comparison to previous years.
According to the National Institute of Drug Abuse, individuals who began using in their teen years were 4-7 times more likely to develop a dependence. There may also be a link between how early you start using cannabis and your risk of dependence, though further replications of this study are needed to confirm.
Cannabis smoking may have similar risks as smoking tobacco and is thought to cause similar inflammation and irritation in the airways of smokers.
One study, in particular, found that there may be a link between smoking cannabis and an increased risk of developing chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder. In heavy smokers, the observed risk was even higher. However, they also note that the association “requires significant further study.”
The bottom line
Migraines can be particularly debilitating and unfortunately are often hard to treat. Current research indicates that cannabis may help with both the prevention and alleviation of symptoms associated with migraines. If you are thinking of trying cannabis for migraines, consult your doctor first, especially if you are taking other medications.
The use of cannabis for migraine treatment looks to be promising in the future, but right now, more research is needed to be sure.
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