Medical Cannabis Could Offer Alternative
For Chronic Pain Patients As
Opioid Prescriptions Spike


The largest study of its kind in the UK has shown that patients prescribed medical cannabis reported significant changes to their pain levels and overall quality of life. These patients also reported a reduction in their use of prescribed opioids.

The study published in Expert Review of Neurotherapeutics from the UK Medical Cannabis Registry, run by Sapphire Clinics, found that fewer than one in five chronic pain patients reported adverse effects from medical cannabis.

Of the medical cannabis side effects reported by the 700-patient study, over 85% were of mild or moderate severity, as determined by a standardised classification used in clinical trials. Check-ups at one, three and six months recorded important changes in health-related quality of life and pain levels.

The UK’s ageing population means that chronic pain is set to become an even greater issue, further exacerbating the need for safe and effective treatment. NICE guidelines state the risks outweigh the benefits of prescribing opioids in most causes of chronic non-cancer pain. But, although chronic pain is currently the most common diagnosis for which medical cannabis is prescribed, it remains dwarfed by the record 57 million opioid prescriptions for this condition written last year. Side effects are common in people prescribed opioids with between 50 to 80% of patients in clinical trials reporting at least one side effect.

On average, GPs report that a chronic pain patient will be prescribed two opioid based medications before being offered a different therapy, and nearly every GP in the UK (98%) has prescribed them for pain in recent months. However, most GPs (52%) do want to be able to provide alternatives to opioids, but nearly two-thirds (61%) say they lack the options to do so.

With as many as 28 million adults in the UK living with diagnosed pain conditions, the paucity of recommended therapies for general practitioners mean that patients are exposed to potentially ineffective treatment regimens with a high risk of harm. One in seven (14%) chronic pain patients prescribed opioids claim they became dependent or addicted, and strong side effects have prevented one in four (23%) from living a normal life. More than two in five (41%) GPs are also aware that patients are choosing to self-medicate with illicit cannabis, which can pose significant health risks.

Even though further research is required on medical cannabis, there is growing opinion among some UK GPs of its impact for patients. Almost two-fifths (37%) of GPs believe that medical cannabis has the potential to reduce patient dependency on other medications, and that it could improve quality of life (41%), but despite this just 2% have ever recommended it.

This discrepancy further emphasises the need for additional clinical data on the efficacy of medical cannabis for chronic pain, to ensure that GPs have access to the information they need to make an informed treatment decision for their patients. Sapphire Clinics is calling on the government to make funding available for these types of trials, to increase the available data on the impacts of medical cannabis for chronic pain treatment, and for more prescribing powers to be made available for GPs.

Dr Simon Erridge, Head of Research and Access at Sapphire Clinics commented: “An ageing population represents a pressing need to consider how chronic pain can be addressed, and it’s clear that currently GPs do not have enough information about the options available. Our study goes some way to demonstrating the outcomes for eligible patients when prescribed medical cannabis, but much more data is needed to allow health care professionals to make informed decisions.”

Miles Worne, President of Curaleaf International said: “The findings of the Sapphire Clinics study emphasise the potential that may be unlocked for medical cannabis in the UK pending the right types of research. As a Curaleaf International organisation, we’re proud that this research by Sapphire Clinics reflects the wider Curaleaf mission to focus on quality and standards that deliver safe and effective care for patients across the UK.”

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