New research by Oxford University into the role of cannabis as a means of pain relief suggests that the effects produced by the drug vary greatly between individuals. However, by using tablets of THC, the psychoactive component of the drug, researchers concluded that cannabis increases a patient’s ability to cope with pain as opposed to actually reducing the intensity of it.
The research was carried out on a group of twelve healthy, male volunteers who were either given a sample of THC or a placebo tablet. The sensation of pain was then simulated by spreading either a dummy cream or a cream mixed with chilli onto the skin of the legs of the participants which caused an irritating, burning sensation. A series of four MRI scans were then conducted and the effects of the drug on varies parts of the brain were recorded. The group’s research was published in the journal Pain.
Lead researcher, Dr Michael Lee, of Oxford University’s Centre for Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging of the Brain (FMRIB) commented, "Cannabis does not seem to act like a conventional pain medicine. Some people respond really well, others not at all, or even poorly."
He continued, "Brain imaging shows little reduction in the brain regions that code for the sensation of pain, which is what we tend to see with drugs like opiates. Instead cannabis appears to mainly affect the emotional reaction to pain in a highly variable way."
Dr Lee and the research team see the results as being “of interest scientifically” but admit that more research carried out on patients for a longer period of time is needed. He added, "Our small-scale study, in a controlled setting, involved twelve healthy men and only one of many compounds that can be derived from cannabis. That’s quite different from doing a study with patients."
The results may one day have positive ramifications for patients suffering from chronic pain, especially in cases where there is no clear cause for it. At least for now, the study indicates that the ability of cannabis to act as a pain relief does vary between individuals.