In a promising step for people who suffer from headaches, a study published in the Journal of Pain found that marijuana reduces migraine and headache pain by almost half. Carrie Cuttler, a Washington State University (WSU) assistant professor of psychology, led the study, which was the first of its kind to use data from patients using cannabis in real-time.
Cannabis is a common treatment for headaches and migraines, especially in states where medical cannabis is readily available. Despite its popularity among headache and migraine patients, research on this subject is limited. Cuttler’s study aimed to identify the effects of various doses of cannabis concentrate and flower inhalation on headache and migraine severity.
Inhaled Cannabis Reduces Headache and Migraine Pain
According to the study’s findings, inhaled cannabis reduced self-reported headaches scores by 47.3 percent and migraine pain by 49.6 percent. Researchers used the Strainprint app, which allows patients to record their severity of pain before and after consuming licensed medical cannabis from Canada.
Over 1,300 patients used the app more than 12,200 times to track headache symptoms, while 653 patients used the app 7,400 times to record their migraine pain levels. “We wanted to approach this in an ecologically valid way, which is to look at actual patients using whole-plant cannabis to medicate in their own homes and environments,” Cuttler said.
Minor Gender Differences
In terms of differences in gender, researchers discovered that significantly more men reported sessions with fewer headache pain. 90.9 percent of men reported headache reduction, while 89.1 percent of women had sessions involving headache reduction. Additionally, women had significantly more sessions with a worsening of headache (Women: 2.9 percent vs. Men: 1.8 percent).
THC and CBD Concentration
Researchers also analyzed data from Strainprint to determine if cannabinoid concentration of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD) had any effect on headache or migraine severity. The study found that low and high THC and CBD concentrations provided about the same amount of relief.
High-THC and high-CBD strains are both popular for headache reduction, but this study suggests that THC and CBD aren’t the only chemical compounds responsible for the pain-relieving effects. Other chemical compounds such as terpenes may influence the level of headache or migraine relief a user experiences.
Concentrates and Flower
According to the study, cannabis concentrates were “associated with larger reductions in headache than flower.” Still, flower provided patients with significant headache pain reduction. The study is one of, if not the only, study to research the health benefits of cannabis concentrates. Researchers aren’t sure that improved pain scores is influenced by potency alone.
No Overuse Headaches From Cannabis
WSU researchers also aimed to find out if consistent cannabis use led to medication overuse headache. For example, about 15 percent of migraine patients report medication overuse headache when taking over-the-counter medications. Researchers found that cannabis does not lead to medication overuse headache or make headache or migraine symptoms worse.
This WSU study is one of the very few studies on this subject. In 2016, the University of Colorado was the first to study the effects of marijuana on patients with migraines. Researchers believed that cannabinoids’ effects on serotonin levels could make medical marijuana an alternative to conventional migraine medication.
Researchers reviewed 121 migraine patient’s medical charts who also used medical marijuana to treat their pain. Patients used cannabis in various forms and frequencies to reduce their symptoms. Almost 40 percent of migraine patients reported “positive effects” ranging from reduced pain severity to reduced migraine frequency.
The study found that “migraine headache frequency decreased from 10.4 to 4.6 headaches per month” in patients who used medical marijuana. Of the 121 patients, 14 of them reported using only cannabis to prevent an impending migraine. The study’s authors called for more research on the effects of different strains, formulations, and doses of cannabis on migraine headaches.
Using Cannabis for Headaches and Migraines
When conventional treatment doesn’t do the trick, patients can consult their doctors about using medical marijuana for headaches and migraines. Health professionals recommend starting off with the lowest dose possible, about 1 mg to 2.5 mg of THC or CBD per day. Incrementally adjusting the dosage can allow patients to reduce side effects while maximizing cannabis’ efficiency.
Many users may start off with CBD-rich products such as vapes, tinctures, and edibles to avoid any intoxicating effects. Combining CBD and THC, however, may provide more balanced effects and lower the side effects caused by THC such as paranoia. Vaporizing flower or concentrates may provide immediate relief during an episode, while oral formulations can provide long-lasting pain relief.
This new study on the effects of cannabis on headache and migraine severity is a constructive step toward more rigid clinical trials. Double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trials are needed to determine the exact extent of medical cannabis’ efficacy on these painful symptoms. For now, many patients across the country cite medical cannabis as an indispensable part of their pain management treatment.