Treating Acute Pain with Medical Cannabis: Why It Makes Sense

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Each of the states with active medical cannabis programs maintains a list of qualifying conditions for which the drug can be utilized. Chronic pain tops those lists. But in some states, acute pain is also on the list. Is that good? Does treating acute pain with medical cannabis make sense? Absolutely.

Cannabis Instead of Opioids

According to the folks at Utahmarijuana.org, acute pain wasn’t originally on Utah’s qualifying conditions list. It was added to the list following the 2022 legislative session. Acute pain can now be treated in Utah with medical cannabis provided several conditions are met:

  1. The pain must be expected to last two weeks or longer.
  2. The condition causing the pain must be an acute condition.
  3. The condition must be one for which a doctor would normally prescribe narcotic painkillers.

The last condition really explains the rationale behind treating acute pain with cannabis. Here’s the deal: if a doctor would temporarily prescribe something like fentanyl to help manage pain after a surgical procedure, why not give patients the option to use medical cannabis instead? It makes complete sense.

Patients Deserve Options

One might argue that fentanyl has been clinically proven to relieve acute pain while medical cannabis has not. That may be true, but there is a caveat: cannabis has not received nearly the same level of attention from researchers as opioids have. A lack of resounding clinical evidence in support of medical cannabis as a pain reliever does not mean that the drug doesn’t work.

More importantly, patients deserve options. Not everyone is on board with prescription pain medications. Not everyone is enthusiastic about taking fentanyl for 2 to 4 weeks, or longer. The more we know about opioids as a class of drugs, the more people are wary of taking them.

Medical cannabis gives patients another option. It gives doctors another option, too. Just like patients, not every doctor is happy about writing a narcotic painkiller prescription. Give them the choice to recommend medical cannabis and some of them undoubtedly will.

Acute Pain Is Short Term

It doesn’t hurt to remind ourselves that we are talking about acute pain here. Acute pain is a short-term condition unlikely to last three months. When you get to three months and beyond, you are talking chronic pain.

Just to illustrate the point, the medical cannabis website operated by the state of Utah specifically cites surgical procedures in its description of using medical cannabis to treat acute pain. Consider hip replacement surgery. Its tendency to cause severe pain is well known. The pain can last anywhere from a few weeks to a couple of months. But in almost every case, it is temporary. The pain subsides as the patient heals.

What is the rationale for giving a hip replacement patient a potentially addictive drug? If it’s the only drug available, fine. But if there are other options, it doesn’t make sense to deprive the patient of those options. Enter medical cannabis.

Still Governed by Federal Standards

In a strictly medical sense, cannabis is still governed by misplaced federal standards. Marijuana remains on the government’s Schedule I list of controlled substances under the assumption that it has little medical value but high addictive potential. Would anyone dare say that cannabis is more addictive than fentanyl?

Given the alternatives, it makes complete sense to offer patients medical cannabis as a treatment for acute pain. If the pain cannot be well-managed by over the counter or non-narcotic painkillers, cannabis ought to be an option offered side-by-side with prescription narcotics. It is the right thing to do for patients and their caregivers.

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