Researchers say people who inhale cannabis reported significant reduction in pain from migraine attacks and other severe headaches.
Experts say the research is preliminary, but they add cannabis can relax the central nervous system and relieve the stress that sometimes causes headaches.
Experts add that inhaling cannabis provides relief more quickly than eating cannabis products that need to go through the digestive system.
Inhaling cannabis may reduce pain for people who experience migraine attacks and other types of severe headaches by nearly 50 percent.
That’s the conclusion of a study published recently in The Journal of Pain.
The research is the first to use data in real time from people with migraine and other headache conditions, according to the study authors.
The research was led by Carrie Cuttler, PhD, an assistant professor of psychology at Washington State University.
“This is a study that says to us that we should do further studies,” Daniele Piomelli, PhD, the director of the University of California, Irvine Institute for the Study of Cannabis, told Healthline. “It has tremendous value. It’s not a breakthrough, but it’s a modestly interesting finding.”
What the study showed
Researchers used archived data from the Strainprint app, in which users track symptoms before and after using medical cannabis.
Information came from more than 1,300 participants who tracked changes in headache severity more than 12,200 times.
Of them, 653 people used the app more than 7,400 times to track changes in migraine severity.
People with migraine reported that cannabis reduced their migraine attack severity by 49 percent. Those with non-migraine pain said cannabis reduced pain severity by 47 percent.
Researchers, including Cuttler, say the study had limitations from using existing Strainprint participants who already use cannabis, meaning their opinions already leaned toward believing the drug is effective.
“I suspect there are some slight overestimates of effectiveness,” Cuttler told SciTechDaily. “My hope is that this research will motivate researchers to take on the difficult work of conducting placebo-controlled trials. In the meantime, this at least gives medical cannabis patients and their doctors a little more information about what they might expect from using cannabis to manage these conditions.”
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The benefits of inhaling
Unlike having to digest edibles, inhaling cannabis allows for quicker absorption into the body, says Laura Peters, a health and wellness expert for shopCBD.com, a group that researches various brands and sells what it considers to be the best quality of cannabis on its website.
“It can definitely help with migraines that are stress-related,” Peters told Healthline. “It calms your central nervous system. The absorption comes much more quickly. It doesn’t have to pass through your digestive system.”
Jamie Bacharach is a licensed acupuncturist and herbal medicine practitioner who prescribes cannabis for migraine and headaches from her clinic in Jerusalem.
She says inhaling cannabis gets it to the bloodstream more quickly than any other ingestion method.
“Because oxygen in inhaled breath crosses the alveolar walls quickly, it is able to easily become attached to blood in order to carry the properties of smoke through the body,” Bacharach told Healthline.
“Ingesting the cannabis via other means takes more time to work and otherwise does not carry the health benefits along into the body as efficiently,” she said.
That said, some methods of inhaling are better than others, according to Jordan Tishler, MD, a staff internist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and at Harvard Medical School as well as the medical advisory board of website cannabisMD.
“It’s inhalation, not smoke per se, that’s better,” Tishler told Healthline. “Inhalation has rapid onset [of] 10 to 15 minutes and relatively short duration [of] 3 to 4 hours, which makes it more effective for acute episodic illness, like headaches.”
Finances and marketing
Tishler says there’s also another side to long-term use.
“Increasing tolerance can lead to very heavy use, which is likely less good for long-term health,” he said. “It’s also hard on patients financially. When cannabis is used properly, under medical guidance, these sorts of dose escalation doesn’t happen. My patients have been maintained on the same dose with continued benefit for years.”
Opinions vary as to the benefits the study may have on the marketing of cannabis.
Alex Wolfe, the vice president of business development for shopCBD.com, told Healthline that “this will help, business-wise,” but the real key is more research aimed at getting the approvals necessary for mass marketing in the United States.
“You can’t make medical claims about non-approved products,” Tishler said. “Cannabis may be as effective or more effective, but those studies have not been done.”
“Self-treatment without proper diagnosis and follow up is dangerous. There are many things that could cause headache that are dangerous and need intervention. So no one should self-treat with cannabis, too,” he added.
Opinions are also mixed as to whether the study will further arguments for legalization.
“Legalization doesn’t help patients,” Tishler said. “It doesn’t provide a necessary framework for physician prescription, nor does it encourage medically useful product development. It only encourages companies to treat patients like recreational users, which is not appropriate or helpful to them.”
Nikola Djordjevic, MD, a family physician and medical advisor at LoudCloudHealth, says he could see cannabis eventually being marketed as being as effective as ibuprofen.
“Essentially, it works as an anti-inflammatory by using the endocannabinoid pathway that is naturally present in our bodies,” Djordjevic told Healthline. “This new way of targeting inflammation is revolutionary, and it reduces inflammation by creating balance and homeostasis in the body. The anti-anxiety component of [cannabidiol] also helps those with migraines, since it can help prevent their onset.”
Bacharach says that although a positive development for headache treatment, this first study is “not much more than a drop in the bucket” so far.
“The academic research involved in determining the effects of cannabis on migraines remains thin, even after the publishing if this study,” he said. “Tracking the effects of cannabis through an app on 1,300 people does not come close to matching the amount of painstaking research and studies which are typically conducted in order for a drug to gain [Food and Drug Administration] approval or warrant legalization, particularly for a substance as controversial as cannabis.”