Medical cannabis has been gaining traction as a potential treatment for rheumatoid arthritis (RA).
This chronic autoimmune disease can affect various parts of the body, causing inflammation and pain in the joints. RA can also lead to other health problems.
As there is no cure for RA, developing treatments to help reduce the symptoms and improve an individual’s quality of life is essential. Although experts do not fully understand the exact mechanism by which medical cannabis works to relieve the painful symptoms of RA, some evidence suggests that it can be effective.
This article looks at medical cannabis for RA in more detail, including its benefits and risks and how to use it to ease RA symptoms.
Until recently, the legal status of medical cannabis has limited the number of studies looking into its health benefits, but research is now gaining momentum.
RA is an autoimmune disease, meaning that the immune system mistakenly attacks healthy cells. The resulting damage causes inflammation in the affected areas, which are oftenTrusted Source the joints.
A 2021 systematic review of animal studies found that certain cannabis compounds, including cannabidiol (CBD), cannabigerol (CBG), and a combination of CBD and delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), could consistently reduce pro-inflammatory cytokines. Cytokines are molecules that drive the inflammatory process. However, THC alone did not have this effect. THC is the primary intoxicating compound of cannabis.
In another 2021 studyTrusted Source, researchers looked at the effects of medical cannabis on 319 participants with RA and other health issues. They used questionnaires to assess how medical cannabis use affected the participants’ pain and sleep quality. The researchers concluded that medical cannabis had a favorable effect on these parameters.
These results expanded on earlier work from 2006Trusted Source involving Sativex, a cannabis-based medication containing CBD and THC. The researchers found that it significantly improved specific pain parameters and sleep quality compared with a placebo. Additionally, the treatment group reported only mild or moderate adverse effects. However, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not yet approved Sativex as a treatment in the U.S.
In addition, a research reviewTrusted Source suggested that cannabinoids are a safe and modestly effective treatment option for chronic non-cancer-related pain.
However, not all of the research supports these findings. A 2017 overview articleTrusted Source concluded that there was insufficient evidence to recommend cannabinoids as a treatment for chronic pain in rheumatic disease.
A 2018 review agreed, finding only low quality evidence to support cannabis as effective for the treatment of non-cancer-related pain. However, it is important to note that these studies focused on chronic pain of many types rather than that specifically due to RA.
Overall, some research suggests that cannabis and cannabis compounds could modify the chronic pain of RA, improve people’s sleep, and support their well-being. However, further large-scale clinical studies investigating the effects of medical cannabis on RA would help doctors better understand the benefits of this plant-based treatment.
The primary benefit of medical cannabis for people living with RA is that it can ease chronic pain. One of the largest reviews to date considered more than 10,700 studies on the potential health benefits and risks of cannabis.
The review concluded that cannabis and its compounds effectively relieved chronic pain, a significant symptomTrusted Source of RA.
Another potential benefit of medical cannabis for people with RA is that it may boost mental health. As RA causes inflammation and pain, it can negatively affect a person’s quality of life and mental well-being.
In fact, depression and anxiety are common among individuals living with RA. A 2017 study found that about 30% of people develop depression within 5 years of an RA diagnosis. Another 2017 studyTrusted Source reported a significantly higher rate of depression among those with RA, at 39%. The authors also noted that about 20% of individuals with RA experience anxiety.
Some people may find that cannabis helps ease challenging mental health problems. For example, a 2017 review of cannabis as a treatment for mental health found that it could help relieve depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms. However, the authors caution that medical cannabis is inappropriate for certain mental health conditions, such as bipolar disorder and psychosis.
The review also highlighted some evidence suggesting that medical cannabis could alleviate social anxiety. Conversely, though, other research has found that cannabis users could have an increased risk of social anxiety.
Anyone living with RA and considering the use of medical cannabis should discuss the potential benefits and risks with a doctor to determine its suitability.
Image: Unsplashed Avery Meeker