July 17, 2020

Effect of Inhaled Cannabis for Pain in Adults With Sickle Cell Disease A Randomized Clinical Trial

Clinical trial co-led by UCI professor is first of its kind to use gold-standard method.

Sickle cell disease affects approximately 100,000 Americans. It is a genetic disease characterized by chronic pain and extremely painful episodes, which usually require treatment with large doses of opioids for extended periods of time. Opioids have a long list of side effects including respiratory depression and the risk of addiction. Cannabis has shown promise in treating pain but few controlled human trials have investigated the therapeutic uses of cannabis in a rigorous way. This study evaluated the effects of an approximately 1:1 ratio of THC and CBD in vaporized cannabis, compared to a placebo control that contained no active drug. The participants were 23 persons with sickle cell disease who experienced chronic pain. Each participant completed treatment with both the THC and CBD containing vapor as well as the placebo vapor. Patients used opioids similarly throughout both legs of the trial (cannabis and placebo) and there were no adverse side effects reported with the cannabis treatment.  The trial concluded that vaporized cannabis did not significantly reduce pain and associated symptoms in comparison to placebo. The only statistically significant finding was that the cannabis treatment resulted in a decreased interference of sickle cell symptoms with mood.  Shortcomings of this study include its small sample size (23) and its short duration of treatment (5 days). Further investigations should be conducted to assess the utility of cannabis as a treatment for chronic pain, particularly since this work found no significant adverse effects with this drug. Better understanding how cannabis can and cannot effectively treat pain may help curb the ongoing opioid epidemic and may aid in safely managing chronic pain.

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