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Pilot study investigates effects of medical cannabis on pain, anxiety, depression, sleep

Based on a small-scale, non-controlled pilot study led by Yan Wang, PhD at the University of Florida, medical cannabis may have the potential to reduce pain intensity, anxiety, and depression and may improve sleep and quality of life.

From April 2019 through September 2020, researchers studied 46 participants who newly initiated medical cannabis treatment for chronic pain. The findings were published in the journal Cannabis.

Data collection included participants completing a baseline survey prior to starting medical cannabis, smartphone-based ecological monetary assessments (EMA) for up to four weeks, and a follow up survey three months after baseline. Results were not compared to a control group of individuals that did not start medical marijuana.

Survey questions included the following topics: demographics; history of and current cannabis use; and health outcomes such as pain intensity, depression, anxiety, sleep, and overall health-related quality of life. The baseline and follow up surveys evaluated changes in health outcomes over the three-month period.

Results of baseline and follow up data:

  • At baseline, 13% of participants reported no more than minor everyday pain. At the three months follow up, 33% of participants reported no more than minor everyday pain.
  • While participants did not show a significant decrease in anxiety from the surveys, there was a significant improvement in depressive symptoms. 
  • Participants self-reported increases in the time and quality of their sleep and their overall health-related quality of life from baseline to follow up surveys.

Participants also completed smartphone-based EMA, which recorded a study participant’s self-reported symptoms and behaviors in their everyday life by collecting data via several periodic prompts every day.

Results of EMA data:

  • Analysis of the self-reported EMA data showed a reduction of 16.5 points (on a 0-100 visual analogue scale) for real-time pain intensity. The visual analogue scale used for pain allowed participants to mark their level of pain along a continuous line.
  • Anxiety reduced by 0.89 points (out of 5) and sleep quality increased by 0.32 points (out of 5).
  • Participants also reported 0.34 hours more of sleep. No significant improvements were recorded for depressive symptoms.

While all data collected during the study came in with self-reports from participants, the study takes the initial step in investigating the effects of using medical cannabis on chronic pain and related health otucomes. Medical cannabis may reduce pain intensity, anxiety, depression and may improve sleep and quality of life for middle age and older adults with chronic pain.

Future studies including a controlled study will be necessary to further validate the findings with larger samples to understand the use medical cannabis for chronic pain.

Read the full research article in Cannabis.

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