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Can medical cannabis be effective for arthritis?


Cannabis has been used medicinally as a treatment for pain for millennia and today, as a growing number of jurisdictions continue to legalise the medicinal use of the widely prohibited plant, pain is still the most common reason reported for its use. It should come as no surprise, then, that in recent years, interest in the potential of medical cannabis as a treatment for arthritis has been on the rise. As an inflammatory condition that is associated with pain, discomfort, and lower quality of life, many theorise that medical cannabis may be a useful therapy for those living with the condition. But is there any evidence?

What is Arthritis?

Arthritis is a common inflammatory condition affecting joints, causing pain and discomfort. It can also have an impact on other areas of life, including mobility, the ability to perform everyday tasks, and general quality of life. Various forms of arthritis – including the most common types: Rheumatoid Arthritis and Osteoarthritis – are thought to affect over 10 million people in the UK alone. The identification of effective treatment options is, therefore, an important area of consideration.

No cure has, as yet, been found for arthritis and current treatments focus on symptom management and slowing the progression of the condition. A number of treatment options are currently used, including non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and opioid-based painkillers. However, while these therapies may be effective in the short term, evidence suggests that their efficacy declines over time – not to mention the significant addiction and overdose risk associated with opioids. The unfavourable benefit-risk profile or many arthritis treatment options has led many to seek alternative therapies – including cannabis.

Medical cannabis and arthritis

A growing body of evidence suggests that cannabis and its derivatives may be useful in relieving pain and inflammation, in addition to improving quality of life. The two most common cannabinoids – CBD and THC – have been a particular focus of recent studies looking to assess these potential benefits. While high-quality clinical evidence remains limited (thanks to decades of prohibition), several studies have indicated that medical cannabis may well be beneficial in pain conditions – including arthritis.

And this isn’t just a theoretical link: A 2019 survey of over 1,000 patients with arthritis found that 37% had tried cannabis to help manage their arthritis and 57% had tried CBD products. What’s more, 97% of those who reported trying cannabis said that it had improved their symptoms; 93% of CBD users also reported improvements in arthritis symptoms. But are these findings supported by any other clinical and real-world studies?

The evidence

In recent years, several studies have focused on the potential of medical cannabis as a treatment for arthritis. Many of these assessed self-reported effects of various medical cannabis preparations. For example, the researchers of a 2022 study developed a novel anonymous questionnaire that was delivered to a sample of arthritis patients. The participants were recruited through various channels, including social media accounts and newsletters. 

Following analysis of the participant responses, it was found that respondents associated CBD use with improvements in pain (83%), physical function (66%), and sleep quality (66%). Furthermore, the majority of participants also reported a reduction or complete cessation of other medications, including anti-inflammatories, opioids, and acetaminophen, after initiating CBD use. 

Various other studies have demonstrated that medical cannabis may be useful for improving pain and quality of life – both of which are major considerations for patients with arthritis. For example, a 2016 study found that medical cannabis use was associated with a reduction in pain. improvements in functional outcomes and a reduction in opioid use.

How does it work?

Cannabinoids like CBD and THC – and a number of other compounds produced by the cannabis plant – are known to interact with the human Endocannabinoid System (ECS). This receptor system plays a significant role in a number of important physiological and cognitive functions, including pain signalling and inflammation. The ECS has, therefore, been considered a potentially effective target for new therapies for pain management.

The ECS also plays a role in mood regulation, which means it may also be an effective target for treating conditions such as anxiety and depression. This explains why a growing number of people are trying CBD products as an alternative remedy for stress and anxiety. In a clinical setting, this potential anti-anxiety property may contribute to improvements in the quality of life for patients with a wide array of conditions.

Can you get a medical cannabis prescription for arthritis in the UK?

Despite the rescheduling of cannabis in 2018, a recent poll found that millions of people in the UK are still using recreational cannabis products, sourced from the black market, to self-medicate. This situation is largely down to persisting barriers to medical cannabis treatment in the UK. Since its legalisation over four years ago, only three prescriptions for medical cannabis have been approved by the NHS. However, private clinics are working to provide for the remaining – potentially millions – of patients – albeit at a high cost.

Private medical cannabis clinics in the UK are able to prescribe cannabis-based medicines for arthritis. Many clinics have also joined the Project Twenty21 initiative to offer reduced-cost prescription fees while gathering evidence of patient outcomes. For more information on how to access a medical cannabis prescription, take a look at leafie’s extensive guide.


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