Medicinal marijuana has been gaining wider acceptance throughout the United States, but there are still plenty of things we don’t understand about the effects of the drug.We may be a step closer on at least one angle, though — the ability of cannabis to dull pain. Using brain imaging technology, researchers at Oxford University suggest that the drug doesn’t actually lessen the intensity of pain that patients are feeling. Instead, it seems to change the perception of the sensation, helping patients find the same amount of pain more tolerable.
The results of the small MRI study were published this week in the journal Pain, and show that the active compounds in marijuana — cannabinoids — seemed to reduce activity in the parts of the brain that registered pain, suggesting that while test subjects could likely still experience pain, they didn’t seem to mind it as much. In other words, it’s not working to change what nerves are feeling, but to change patient’s perception of what their nerves are feeling.
That insight could have major potential for understanding how marijuana and cannabis compounds help to relieve pain for some patients, a mechanism that is still woefully misunderstood. While some patients get no pain relief benefit from cannabis, others find it works where no other drug has. So while it’s clear that cannabis can help patients suffering from pain, understanding the mechanism of how it does so is key to bringing that relief to more patients, and applying it more effectively.
There’s a lot of work yet to do before these clues offer real world help for people suffering from long term pain as this latest study was carried out on healthy volunteers exposed to a pain causing chili-cream.The next step is to start working on imaging studies that can show whether the drug has the same effect on patients actually suffering from long-term, chronic pain.