Chronic pain comes in many different forms. The incidence of all types of chronic pain has been increasing in recent years, affecting more and more Canadians in their daily lives. Migraines, cluster headaches, and chronic headaches are types of chronic pain more Canadians are living with.
The prevalence of migraine headaches in Canada has been steadily increasing over the years. In 2010/2011, the last year data is available for, Statistics Canada reported nearly 2.7 million Canadians had been diagnosed with migraines by a medical professional. This number had increased from data reported in 1994 and 2001. The number has almost certainly increased since then.
Migraines can be quite debilitating, often making the patient sensitive to light and sound. The pain, which can last for days, can be unbearable.
It’s unsurprising migraine patients would look for more effective relief from their symptoms. One treatment they’re turning to is medical cannabis. If you’re wondering about cannabis and relief for your migraines, you might ask what evidence there is that medical marijuana may be able to help. The answer may surprise you.
There’s a Long History of Use
The use of medical cannabis for the treatment of headaches is documented from at least the 1800s with many prominent physicians advocating it as effective for both relief and preventative treatment. In the early 20th century, both British and American pharmacists dispensed cannabis for headache sufferers.
One article from 1887 advocated using cannabis twice daily for what it called “chronic daily headaches,” which were likely chronic migraines. In 1938, a comprehensive review argued against the illegalization of cannabis for medicinal purposes. It cited 12 sources suggesting medical cannabis was an effective treatment for headaches.
The Endocannabinoid Link
Some more modern research is attempting to shed light on why medical cannabis could be an effective treatment for migraines and headaches. There have been some surprising suggestions, including the idea that migraines could result from an endocannabinoid deficiency.
The endocannabinoid system is a naturally occurring system in the human body. The body naturally produces cannabinoid-like substances, and cannabinoids found in cannabis act on this system to produce their effects.
While more clinical trials are needed to verify the results, some preliminary studies have suggested migraines have several relationships to the endocannabinoid function. The substance Anandamide (AEA) acts on at least two receptors in the endocannabinoid system, which suggests there could be a therapeutic effect for cannabis in the treatment and prevention of migraines.
Other studies have suggested reduced levels of AEA in particular areas of the brain could reflect an impairment of the endocannabinoid system in migraine and chronic headache patients, which could contribute to their pain. The suggestion is cannabinoid receptor 1 could play a role in managing migraines.
More Clinical Research Is Needed
Despite the promising results of these early studies, more clinical research is needed to verify the effects of medical cannabis in both the treatment and prevention of migraines. While the research evidence thus far is positive, you should keep in mind the vast majority of the evidence so far is anecdotal, case-based, or laboratory-based research.
What does this mean? It means the studies rely on self-reporting from people already treating themselves with cannabis for their headaches. Systematic clinical trials, with large samples and randomized control groups, are needed to further investigate these early findings.
What Does It Mean?
At this stage, more research is needed, but medical cannabis is one hopeful option for patients managing chronic migraines. The evidence isn’t yet conclusive, but there is reason to think that medical marijuana could one day play a role in creating more effective treatments for migraine sufferers. This is particularly true if the disorder is truly linked to the endocannabinoid system. Only time will tell.