Doctors have been using cannabis to treat a variety of medical conditions, including migraine headaches, for thousands of years. In 1890, British physician J.R. Reynolds, the court physician to Queen Victoria, wrote about his use of cannabis to treat multiple conditions in his patients, including epilepsy, depression, and migraine headaches.
In 1891, American doctor J.B. Mattison wrote that marijuana prevented migraine attacks and eased the pain of existing migraine headaches. Mattison’s results were supported by Canadian doctor William Osler, one of the four founding professors of Johns Hopkins Hospital. In his book The Principles and Practice of Medicine, first published in 1892, Osler wrote:
“Cannabis indica is probably the most satisfactory remedy [for migraines].”
Osler also supported the work of Edward Constant Seguin, president of the New York Neurological Society and a professor at the Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons, another doctor who understood the medical efficacy of cannabis for migraines.
For literally hundreds of years, physicians and medical experts have understood the healing power of cannabis for migraine headaches — as well as dozens of other conditions and ailments. It is perhaps ironic that the majority of today’s physicians fear a backlash from federal authorities because cannabis is categorized as a Schedule I drug (the government’s way of claiming it has zero medical value). This has resulted in many doctors who believe in the healing powers of cannabis, but refuse to recommend or prescribe it to their patients who suffer from migraines based on fear of federal retribution and the loss of their license.
What Are Migraines?
Migraine headaches aren’t the garden variety that plague stressed, exhausted, or hungry people on a daily basis. Migraine attacks can last anywhere from a couple of hours to several days. They are caused by the spasm and narrowing of the blood vessels leading to the brain. Reduced blood flow results in reduced oxygen levels, which in turn produces higher levels of serotonin. As blood vessels outside the brain constrict, they can become filled with platelets. These conditions all conspire to create one of the most painful conditions suffered by humans.
There are two types of migraines: Classic and Common. Classic migraine attacks involve an “aura” about 20-30 minutes before the onset of the intense headache. The aura may be characterized by a metallic odor and bursts of light in one’s peripheral vision. Common migraines lack this aura.
Migraines can be especially debilitating and are commonly accompanied by frequent bouts of vomiting. Everyday tasks like driving, talking, cooking, and walking can become difficult or impossible. Those who suffer daily attacks are not only in great pain, but often unable to hold jobs, be productive, and properly care for children. Migraine sufferers are typically women, giving researchers a clue that might lead to a connection between hormones and the condition.
Common treatments include reductions in noise and light and consumption of acetaminophen or caffeine to dilate blood vessels and decrease pain. Why do some also treat themselves by smoking or vaping cannabis? Does marijuana provide true relief for migraine sufferers?
Institute of Medicine Weighs In
In 1999, the Institute of Medicine in Washington, D.C. (a nonprofit organization founded in 1970 as part of the National Academy of Sciences) released a detailed report regarding medical marijuana that specifically examined its risks and benefits. The report, an examination of 15 previous studies, concluded:
“Accumulated data indicate a potential therapeutic value for [cannabis] drugs, particularly for symptoms such as pain relief, control of nausea and vomiting, and appetite stimulation.”
Pain and nausea/vomiting are the primary symptoms caused by migraine headaches. Due to its inherent analgesic (pain relief) and anti-nausea qualities, cannabis is especially good at treating migraine headaches. Some research also points toward cannabis being a mild vasodilator and lowering blood pressure. Sufferers should note that indica strains are typically better than sativas at relieving migraines.
At a more granular level, it is both the efficacy of individual cannabinoids, like THC, and the synergistic action of the entourage effect that work to relieve migraine symptoms. Cannabis is also an anti-inflammatory. It delivers relief from muscle cramps in the neck and shoulders that are common among migraine sufferers.
One of the superiorities of smoking or vaporizing cannabis is quick onset of relief. Because smoked or vaped marijuana is immediately absorbed into the blood stream by the lungs, where it enters the heart and is transported directly to the brain, cannabis can begin to help patients within a little as two-and-a-half minutes of consumption. Sublingual tinctures that are absorbed under the tongue can also be effective within minutes of entering the body.
Better than Pills
Because of a symptom of migraines called gastric stasis, in which the stomach fails to empty itself, edibles may not be an advisable path of ingestion for migraine patients. The other shortcoming of edibles is that, even in the absence of gastric stasis, most patients don’t want to wait an hour or longer for the onset of relief. This is why smoking and vaping are the most popular forms of consumption for all patients.
One superiority of cannabis to pharmaceutical drugs in the form of a pill is that the benefits of smoking aren’t lost after vomiting. Because vomiting can be so severe with intense migraines, orally ingested drugs aren’t best suited for the condition. However, those who gain relief from pharmaceutical drugs and lose that benefit when they vomit will find significant relief in the antiemetic (anti-nausea) qualities of cannabis.
Unfortunately, treatment of migraines with cannabis isn’t a guarantee that patients will experience relief. Kerrie Smyres, a migraine patient who writes about her condition and has addressed the topic of medical cannabis, reports anecdotally that about half of those who suffer from migraine headaches and treat themselves with cannabis gain relief.
However, it should be noted that, while one strain may be ineffective in treating a particular condition like migraines, another may be very effective indeed. According to Smyres:
“There are hundreds (maybe even thousands) of different marijuana strains, all cultivated to have different effects and address different symptoms. If the marijuana that your brother’s friend’s cousin got for you didn’t help (or made you feel worse), a different strain may still be effective.”