Link Between Marijuana, Pain Relief Remains Unclear

Pain is the most common reason patients seek medical marijuana, yet patients' resulting consumption patterns of marijuana when treating pain may also have an effect on their health.

Pain is the most common reason patients seek medical marijuana. Yet, patients’ resulting consumption patterns of marijuana when treating their pain may also have an effect on their health. For this reason, a recent study, published in February in the International Journal of Drug Policy, investigated the association between levels of chronic pain and cannabis consumption patterns.1

The results of the study showed that a greater proportion of patients in the high pain category used cannabis 3 or more times per day, compared with lower pain categories.1 Although patients’ level of pain was not significantly associated with daily cannabis use, patients with both high and moderate pain had a higher likelihood of consuming cannabis 3 or more times per day compared with the low pain group.1

The patients who reported daily consumption of cannabis also reported that their health had become worse over the past year.1 However, the scientists noted that this association may not mean that marijuana is ineffective at treating some kinds of pain, but rather it suggests that further research is necessary on the effects of frequent cannabis use among medical cannabis dispensary patients.1

“It’s not clear if marijuana is helping or not,” said Bridget Freisthler, co-author of the study and professor of social work at The Ohio State University, in a press release. “The benefits aren't as clear-cut as some people assume.”2

Alexis Cooke, co-author of the study and postdoctoral scholar in psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco, elaborated further in the press release that the complex relationship between pain, marijuana consumption, and self-reported health can make correlations more difficult to decipher.2

“Having high chronic pain is related to poorer health, so it may be that people who are using marijuana more often already had worse health to begin with,” Cooke added. “There are still a lot of questions to answer.”2

Among those surveyed in the study, 31% reported high pain, 24% moderate pain, and 44% were in the low-pain category.1 Of these participants, approximately 60% in the high pain category reported using the drug 3 or more times a day, compared with 51% of those with moderate pain and 39% of those in the low pain group.1

Although the results of the study showed no association between daily marijuana use and any change in health among those with low levels of pain, the daily consumption of marijuana was linked to worsening health status among those reporting high levels of pain.1

“It shows how little we know about marijuana as medicine, how people are using it, the dosages they are receiving and its long-term effects,” Freisthler explained in a press release.2

People use marijuana for different types of pain, including cancer, joint pain, HIV, and nerve pain.1 Yet, marijuana’s ability to effectively treat individual types of pain based on its unique causes remains uncertain.1

“Chronic pain is also associated with depression and anxiety. Marijuana may help with these problems for some people, even if it doesn't help with the pain,” Freisthler said in a press release.2

Cooke added, “It may not be the pain that patients are trying to address.”2

Freisthler also explained that the results of the study do show that scientists need to investigate the link between pain relief and marijuana consumption further.2

“Particularly because of the opioid crisis, some people have been touting marijuana as a good substitute for opioids for people in pain,” she said. “But our study suggests we don't know that marijuana is helping to address pain needs.”2


  • Cooke A, Chavez L, Freisthler B. The relationships between chronic pain and changes in health with cannabis consumption patterns. International Journal of Drug Policy. 2020;76:102657. doi: 10.1016/j.drugpo.2019.10265.
  • Whether marijuana helps with pain is unclear: Daily users with severe pain report worsening health [news release]. ScienceDaily; April 8, 2020. Accessed April 9, 2020.

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