Updated on August 16, 2020.
Medical content reviewed by Dr. Joseph Rosado, MD, M.B.A, Chief Medical Officer
Patients who use marijuana to help relieve pain are more likely to
also use it for recreational purposes compared to those without pain, according
to research from Columbia University. Pain patients are also at a greater risk
of cannabis use disorder.
Millions of Americans suffer from chronic pain, and an estimated 64%
of people who use medical marijuana use it to relieve pain, so understanding
potential risks is important.
The study, published in the American Journal of Psychiatry, used a national database to analyze data on marijuana use in 2001-2002 and 2012-2013. The researchers compared non-medical cannabis use patterns (meaning using marijuana without a prescription or using it other than as its prescribed) in adults with and without pain.
The first interesting finding is that 20% of people in the database suffered from moderate to extreme pain, based on a widely used measure.
Nonmedical use of marijuana more than doubled over the decade, increasing from 4.1% in 2002 to 9.5% in 2013. Those with pain were more likely to use marijuana frequently (defined as at least three times a week) than those without pain (5% vs. 3.5%). Though the risk of cannabis use disorder was very low in all users, it was higher in those with pain than those without pain (4.2% vs. 2.7%).
The authors said it was important
for pain patients to be aware of the added risk of increased recreational use
and the added health risks. Though marijuana appears to be safer than opioids
for treating pain, the authors
cautioned users that the risks of long-term marijuana use are not fully
understood. “Psychiatrists and other mental health professionals treating
patients with pain should monitor their patients for signs and symptoms of
cannabis use disorder,” they wrote.