Marijuana patients' lives improved during the year-long study
A recent study by a group of British researchers found that medical cannabis is associated with improvements in health-related quality of life, anxiety and sleep quality. This research adds to the growing body of literature indicating that medical cannabis can help patients with chronic illnesses improve their well-being. The study also observed reduced opioid medication use among cannabis patients and found that patients prescribed dried cannabis flower (compared to tinctures and lozenges) were most likely to experience clinical improvement.
The complex and nuanced task of studying cannabis
The cannabis plant is an incredibly complex and variable medicine. It contains over 400 chemical compounds, more than 100 of which have known medicinal effects. These chemicals are present in cannabis in different amounts and combinations depending on numerous factors: the specific strain, the type of cultivation, the type of processing and the method of consumption.
The authors of this study took a different approach: They examined the effects of certain medical cannabis therapies and their impact on patient well-being.
When observational studies examine cannabis use, they often collect results on a variety of different substances, not just cannabis. More controlled studies – there aren't many – tend to focus on one or two isolated components of cannabis. Although these studies provide more specific results, they don't tell us much about how the different compounds interact with each other. This makes studying cannabis extremely difficult.
However, the authors of this study decided to take a different approach: they examined the effects of certain medical cannabis therapies and their impact on patients' well-being. By tracking the details of the medical cannabis in question, they hoped to collect data that could give us more precise information about the effects of cannabis.
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Can cannabis improve quality of life?
In this study, researchers analyzed data from a cohort of 1,378 medical cannabis patients in the United Kingdom. Around 40% of the patients were already users at the start of the study; the rest weren't.
These patients were prescribed a variety of specific cannabis options, including inhaled dried flowers, sublingual oils, or a combination of both (depending on the patient's medical needs).
At the start of the study, researchers collected information about patients' demographics, health status, medications and occupations, as well as their history of cannabis, other drugs and alcohol. Patients' primary reasons for cannabis use varied, but the most common reasons were chronic pain, neuropathic pain, fibromyalgia, and anxiety.
For each benchmark, the authors found statistically significant improvements from baseline on all measures—anxiety, sleep quality, and health-related quality of life.
At the start of the study, patients were given various self-report measures that allowed them to describe their health-related quality of life, anxiety, and sleep quality. The initial assessment occurred before patients began the cannabis regimen. Patients received additional assessments at 1, 3, 6, and 12 months after starting the program.
After analyzing data from the year-long study, the authors found statistically significant improvements from baseline on all measures—anxiety, sleep quality, and health-related quality of life—at each benchmark. The data suggested that cannabis benefited these patients.
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Patients in the study who were taking opioid medications also reported that they reduced their opioid consumption during the study. The largest decrease (5.66%) occurred after one year of cannabis use.
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Dried cannabis flowers showed the greatest improvements
In an interesting twist, the study also found that patients who were prescribed dried cannabis flower – rather than sublingual cannabis options such as tinctures or lozenges alone – experienced more significant improvements. Dried flowers are the raw form of cannabis, commonly consumed by smoking or vaporizing. Sublingual tablets, on the other hand, are a more processed form of cannabis that can be absorbed through the mucous membranes in the mouth.
While patients who used both cannabis flower and sublingual cannabis achieved similar results to patients who used only cannabis flower, patients who used only sublingual cannabis showed less significant improvements. Nevertheless, these patients noted improvements from baseline at each check-in.
While about a fifth of patients actually experienced negative side effects from cannabis, most of these side effects were moderate or mild. Researchers noted that the most common side effects were fatigue, somnolence (excessive sleepiness), dry mouth, lethargy and headache. One of the 1,378 patients experienced a single episode of psychosis. Finally, patients who were already using cannabis at the start of the study showed fewer negative side effects than those who were abstinent.
We need more cannabis research
Although this study provides valuable insight and supports the idea that cannabis can improve our quality of life, it does have some limitations. Because this is an observational study, it cannot prove that cannabis caused the improvements, only that there is a connection. Additionally, since many patients were already cannabis users, the study could be targeted toward them since cannabis appears to be effective for them. Future research should include randomized, controlled, double-blind trials.