Cannabis could be an effective treatment for chronic pain associated with sickle cell anemia, according to a study conducted by professors at the University of California, Irvine, and University of California, San Francisco.
Affecting anywhere from 70,000 to 100,000 people nationwide, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, sickle cell anemia is a disease that kills red blood cells and can block blood flow, resulting in chronic pain. Opioids are currently the most popular form of treatment for sickle cell pain, but UC Irvine professor Kalpna Gupta believes that vaporizing cannabis could become a safer choice, both for sickle cell patients and those afflicted with chronic pain from other sources.
“Pain causes many people to turn to cannabis and is, in fact, the top reason that people cite for seeking cannabis from dispensaries,” Gupta says. "This trial opens the door for testing different forms of medical cannabis to treat chronic pain."
Gupta and her fellow researchers gave 23 study participants cannabis flower with equal parts CBD and THC and a cannabis placebo to vaporize — which is also a very big deal, but we'll get into that later — monitoring their described pain levels and how chronic pain affected their sleeping habits and quality of life.
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According to the study, the plant's effectiveness appeared to increase over time, with patients reporting less pain interference with walking, sleeping and their overall moods. However, researchers also noted that the differences in pain levels between cannabis and the placebo weren't significantly different. Although cannabis didn't outperform the placebo at a high level, Gupta likes the results enough to push for more research, highlighting a potentially healthier alternative to opioids.
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“These trial results show that vaporized cannabis appears to be generally safe,” she says. “They also suggest that sickle cell patients may be able to mitigate their pain with cannabis, and that cannabis might help society address the public health crisis related to opioids. Of course, we still need larger studies with more participants to give us a better picture of how cannabis could benefit people with chronic pain.”
To keep participants on the same playing field, they only vaporized the same cannabis flower, Gupta notes. That consumption method could be a variable in how sickle cell patients react to cannabis treatment, she explains, as lower amounts of cannabinoids and carcinogens reach the body’s circulation via vaping in comparison to smoking or oral ingestion.
This was the first randomized, placebo-controlled clinical trial on how cannabis use affects sickle cell anemia to be approved and recorded by the federal government, with participants using cannabis provided by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (known for providing pot far below the quality and potency of today's standards) in a controlled, monitored environment. Four previous accredited surveys and retrospective analyses all reported that cannabis showed potential as a pain treatment for sickle cell patients, but none of those studies could provide participants with cannabis and record their consumption.