Syracuse University study sheds light on cannabinoids for pain control

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The university’s research shows that cannabis may not reduce pain intensity, only make it feel less unpleasant

A recent study conducted by Syracuse University’s (SU) College of Arts and Sciences was designed to determine how cannabinoid drugs work for pain relief. What the researchers were able to determine is that cannabis-based treatments may not necessarily reduce the level of pain that the body’s sensors emit, but, rather, that it makes the pain less pleasant and easier to tolerate.

The results are going to be published in the Journal of American Medical Association (JAMA). Its lead author, clinical psychology doctoral candidate Martin De Vita, explains, “Cannabinoid drugs are widely used as analgesics [painkillers], but experimental pain studies have produced mixed findings. Pain is a complex phenomenon with multiple dimensions that can be affected separately.”

Cannabinoids are a component within cannabis plants that produce the plant’s medicinal properties. Marijuana contains a large amount of the components, including tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).

SU Associate Professor Emily Ansell, who heads the school’s Research Lab on Personality, Addiction and Trauma, points out, “THC is the primary psychoactive compound in marijuana and, along with CBD [also known as cannabidiol, a naturally occurring constituent of cannabis] has been the focus of most medicinal use and research.”

When THC is ingested, it binds with receptors in the brain that control pleasure, pain and time perception. This increases the brain’s production of dopamine, resulting in a feeling of relaxation and euphoria.

De Vita also says in the study, “Patients reliably endorse the belief that cannabis is helpful in alleviating pain; however, its analgesic properties are poorly understood. Experimental pain studies of cannabinoid analgesia in healthy adults have produced mixed results.”

Working with Ansell, SU Professor Stephen Maisto and fellow doctoral candidate Dzarie Moskal, De Vita showed that cannabinoid drugs were linked to modest increases in the tolerance of pain in studies that had been conducted on 440 adults. However, the tests also showed that there was no reduction in pain intensity. He explains, “What this means is that cannabinoid analgesia may be driven by an affective, rather than a sensory component. These findings have implications for understanding the analgesic properties of cannabinoids.”

The study was based only on experimental pain. De Vita and the rest of the group want to be able to expand their research to also cover neuropathic and clinical pain.