Since cannabis was legalized for medical use in November 2018, patients have had an almost impossible chance of getting a prescription from the NHS. However, now thousands of people have had access to cannabis-based medicines through private clinics across the UK. The majority of these patients are looking for an effective alternative to manage chronic pain.
In fact, according to Sapphire Medical Clinics, two-thirds of patients who have applied for treatment at Sapphire’s first clinic in Scotland have chronic pain-related conditions. These patients are also believed to have waited a year or more to receive expert help from the NHS.
The direct causes of chronic pain conditions are often not fully understood, making effective treatment difficult. However, prescription pain relievers such as opioids are often prescribed to chronic pain sufferers despite growing uncertainty about their effectiveness and the high risk of abuse and addiction.
Opioid and Chronic Pain
According to a 2012 study, over 948,000 people (18% of the population) were prescribed opioids – most commonly codeine, followed by tramadol and morphine. Prescribing opioid pain medication was “generally associated with reported chronic pain.”
These numbers are worrying when you factor in the high risk of opioid abuse and addiction: Around 4-6% of people who abuse opioid drugs switch to heroin.
These alarming numbers lead many chronic pain sufferers to reject opioid pain relievers and embrace alternative treatment options such as medicinal cannabis.
Medical cannabis hug
Current figures from the Stirling Medical Cannabis Clinic
Data from Sapphire Medical Clinics shows that 65% of referrals for medical cannabis prescriptions from their Scottish clinic so far have gone to people with chronic pain, showing that patients are increasingly looking for alternatives to opioid drugs.
However, in Scotland at least, longer waiting times can also have an impact on the number of chronic pain sufferers using medical cannabis treatment. The number of patients waiting a year or more for a specialist appointment through the NHS has increased nearly 300% over the past year.
Commenting on the situation, according to the Sunday Post, Scottish Conservative Shadow Health Secretary Annie Wells said, “We shouldn’t have reached the point where this new cannabis clinic has so many referrals for chronic pain sufferers. The Minister of Health must ensure the necessary funding to cope with the growing waiting times. “
The Scottish Government also acknowledges that improving chronic pain benefits is a priority: “We know there is room for improvement and this year we will publish an updated framework for the provision of chronic pain benefits.”
Evidence of medical cannabis treatment
In addition to the trend observed in Scotland, likely accelerated by poor access to specialized NHS services, there is growing evidence that medicinal cannabis may be a viable alternative to opioid drugs for the treatment of chronic pain.
A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study concluded that nabilone – a synthetic cannabis drug – “appears to be a beneficial, well-tolerated treatment option for fibromyalgia”. [a common chronic pain condition] Patients, with significant benefits in pain relief and functional improvement. “
In addition, another study showed that while no significant change in pain intensity was observed in patients with chronic pain, the participants showed a significant improvement in quality of life. This was an important finding as opioid pain relievers are often associated with a lower quality of life.
The future of medical cannabis for chronic pain
Public attitudes towards medical cannabis are rapidly becoming more liberal, which often leads to improved access to cannabis-based medicines. But there is still a long way to go, at least in the UK.
Patient access to medical cannabis here in the UK remains nondescript despite being legalized for over two and a half years. The vast majority of patients – only a handful have had access to cannabis medicines through the NHS – get their medication through private cannabis clinics such as Sapphire.
However, as more and more patients seek to harness the alternative potential of cannabis for chronic pain, this will (hopefully) change.