Cannabis has been proven, through both research studies and anecdotal evidence, to relieve the symptoms and sometimes core diseases that plague literally billions of people worldwide. One of the diseases for which is has very targeted efficacy is arthritis. There are two general categories of arthritis: Osteo and rheumatoid.
Osteoarthritis, or OA, the more common and less severe of the two ailments, affects more than 20 million Americans and is caused by the simple wear and tear, or breakdown, of the protective cartilage of one or more joints — although it can also be caused by injury or obesity. OA is a degenerative disease, meaning that it becomes worse over time and may be exacerbated by common movements or everyday activities. Technically, the disease involves articular cartilage degradation and is sometimes called degenerative joint disease.
Osteoarthritis is the most common joint disorder suffered by patients. While it typically plagues the joints of the hands, knees, hips, and spine, osteoarthritis can strike any joint in the body. This condition results in stiffness, chronic (and often severe) pain, and limited mobility. Technically, more than 100 types of arthritis are related to the breakdown of bone cartilage; osteoarthritis is one of them.
Cannabis medicine delivers many avenues of efficacy, but the two most powerful are arguably its role as an analgesic (pain killer) and as an anti-inflammatory. Osteoarthritis is a disease based in inflammation that results in severe pain, so cannabis is especially effective in combating both of these symptoms.
“When I take my [cannabis] medicine, I feel more relaxed, I feel more in charge of my body, and I’m still very coherent to function,”
said Cornelia Grunseth, a patient in California who uses medical cannabis to treat her arthritis. She added that prescription pain killers, which she used prior to adopting cannabis, had her incoherent and unable to manage the events and responsibilities of her day.
Lisa Lang Van Camp, a patient in Illinois who was recommended medical cannabis by her physician for control of her severe osteoarthritis, prefers it to the pharmaceutical drugs, including OxyContin (oxycodone), that she was previously prescribed for pain.
“The one thing that has helped has been medical marijuana…cannabis. Since I’ve been using cannabis, I noticed my symptoms going away,”
she said. Lang Van Camp mentioned how, due to reduced pain, her body “feels better.” “I’m more aware of what I’m physically doing, I’m more engaged in conversation,” she said.
“The magic of this — at least, to me — is, with the cannabis, I have…not needed any of the OxyContin.”
Leading Doctors Weigh In
Dr. Ethan Russo is a board-certified neurologist who serves as Senior Medical Advisor to GW Pharmaceuticals and is the president of the International Cannabinoid Research Society. He is one of the top medical cannabis researchers in the United States and a strong advocate of cannabis for several conditions, including arthritis. Wrote Russo in 2005:
“Science has now demonstrated that the THC component of cannabis is a very effective analgesic (pain killer)….”
Tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, is the infamous psychoactive cannabinoid in the cannabis plant that has also been found to deliver significant medical efficacy for a variety of diseases and ailments, from multiple sclerosis to dystonia to Crohn’s disease. Along with cannabidiol, or CBD, THC is one of the two major cannabinoids found in nearly every strain of cannabis.
Russo added, “…the CBD (cannabidiol) component has unique immunomodulatory benefits…supporting benefits in treatment of…arthritis.” Russo is one of thousands of doctors globally who believes in the power of cannabis and its constituent cannabinoids — THC and CBD — to fight pain and battle inflammation, including at the cellular level.
“There’s been a lot of experimental evidence to show that cannabis can be effective in treating the pains of arthritis, as well as the inflammation and helping with fatigue,”
said Dr. Jason McDougall, a professor of pharmacology and anesthesia and chair of the Scientific Advisory Committee of the Arthritis Society. McDougall stresses that different strains of cannabis will deliver varying results, with some having much more efficacy for arthritis patients than others. He also points to the need for additional research, including clinical studies that examine dosing, delivery avenues, interactions with other drugs, and potential limitations of using cannabis for particular diseases or conditions. He said:
“Further research into medical cannabis is required so we can understand the different subpopulations of patients who may be responsive to medical cannabis.”
Many doctors have become strong proponents of CBD as a treatment for osteoarthritis, not only because it fights both pain and inflammation, but also because it is not psychoactive. This fact allows it to be recommended for children, seniors, those who must operate heavy machinery, and anyone who does not desire to or cannot afford to experience a euphoric, psychoactive effect.
While cannabis can be used to effectively treat arthritis when smoked or vaporized, it is especially effective as a topical, such as as cream, balm, ointment, or salve. Due to the nature of inflammation within the joints, topicals infused with whole-plant cannabis or an extracted (or synthetic) cannabinoid have been found to sometimes be effective in treating ailments of the skin and joints, including eczema, psoriasis, and arthritis.
Topical forms of cannabis offer the advantage of no psychoactive effect, even when they contain THC (only unusually potent patches and other topical forms are capable of conveying even a mild euphoria). The fact that they convey no high but can contain THC, means that CBD/THC mixes can be employed (a process called the entourage effect) that are claimed by some researchers and medical cannabis advocates to offer the greatest efficacy for the majority of patients.
Some patients and cannabis advocates have also recommended juicing the raw leaves of the plant. This is a largely new and unexplored area of cannabis medicine that involves the efficacy of a different cannabinoid called THC-A. Technically, THC-A is an acidic precursor, meaning it becomes converted to THC after the application of heat (such as during smoking or vaping) or over time (due to oxidation and exposure to light). Because juicing involves raw cannabis leaves, none of the THC-A is converted to THC and, thus, different benefits and effects are experienced by patients.
A study published in 2005 in the Journal of Neuroimmunology entitled “Cannabinoids and the Immune System: Potential For the Treatment of Inflammatory Diseases?” confirmed that the cannabinoids in cannabis are an effective treatment for diseases like arthritis that involve inflammation.
A 2013 study published in the journal PLOS One revealed that cannabinoids that target CB2 receptors in the body’s endocannabinoid system, located throughout the immune system and every organ of the body, were effective in dealing with the chronic pain produced by osteoarthritis.
“These findings suggest that targeting CB2 receptors may have therapeutic potential for treating OA pain.”
A study conducted in Spain and published in 2014 in the European Journal of Neuroscience found the cannabinoids within cannabis and their interaction with the endocannabinoid system to be effective in treating both pain and inflammation in rodent models.
“The ubiquitous distribution of cannabinoid receptors, together with the physiological role of the endocannabinoid system in the regulation of pain, inflammation, and even joint function, further support the therapeutic interest of cannabinoids for osteoarthritis.”
More Research Necessary
Until Congress and the federal government reclassify cannabis from Schedule I, where it is legally and officially considered to offer zero medical benefit and to also be highly addictive, robust research, including human trials, will be impossible in the United States. Unfortunately, cannabis is considered more dangerous than methamphetamines and cocaine, both of which reside in less-restricted Schedule II and can be prescribed by a physician.