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Ow, my head: Can cannabis cure a headache?

Despite anecdotal support, there “is a lack of scientific evidence about its safety and effectiveness” as a remedy for headaches and migraines. (Getty Images)
Despite anecdotal support, there “is a lack of scientific evidence about its safety and effectiveness” as a remedy for headaches and migraines. (Getty Images)
Dan Webster EVERCANNABIS Correspondent
So many myths surround the positive effects of cannabis that it’s often difficult to separate truth from mere presumption. How’s this for an example? An article on the website Medical News Today states that cannabis has been used “for thousands of years” as a treatment for headaches. To support this statement, the article cites a 2017 study by a team of researchers at the University of California, San Diego. What did the researchers have to say? That “sufficient anecdotal and preliminary results, as well as plausible neurobiological mechanisms” exist to sanction “properly designed clinical trials.” Some of those “anecdotal results” cited by the U.C. San Diego researchers date as far back to the ancient world. An Assyrian manuscript from the second millennium BCE, for instance, prescribes the use of cannabis to “bind the temples.” In ancient Greece, according to other historical sources, cannabis was used as a treatment for something described as “pain of the ears.” Even as late as the early 20th century, before the so-called “Marihuana Tax Act of 1937” effectively made possession of cannabis illegal in the United States, a number of prominent physicians in both the United Kingdom and the U.S. supported the use of cannabis as a remedy for “headache disorders.” One such supporter was Sir William Osler, a Canadian physician considered by many to be no less than “the father of modern medicine.” Yet the author of the Medical News Today articles also admitted that despite such anecdotal support for using cannabis as a remedy for headaches, there “is a lack of scientific evidence about its safety and effectiveness for this purpose.” Which, when you think about it, isn’t exactly a resounding recommendation. Regardless of what some people might claim, controlled studies are still considered to be the best way to achieve a scientific consensus. And as long as cannabis remains on the federal government’s list of banned drugs, federal funding for such studies will be limited. Yet with the growth of cannabis legalization across the country, calls for such scientific evidence regarding it are growing louder. And a number of institutions are responding – institutions such as Washington State University, which houses the Collaboration on Cannabis Policy, Research, and Outreach (CCPRO), a coalition of some 70 researchers across the WSU system. One of those researchers is Carrie Cuttler, an assistant professor in WSU’s Department of Psychology. Some of Cuttler’s work involves examining the effects of cannabis, including the impact it potentially has on mental health (depression, for example), physical health (pain) and cognition (decision-making, etc.). And the spring 2020 issue of the campus journal WSU Insider features an interesting story concerning findings from a recent WSU study regarding cannabis and headaches. The claim: that “inhaled cannabis reduces self-reported headache severity by 47.3 percent and migraine severity by 49.6 percent.” Published in the online health journal, The Journal of Pain, the WSU study – of which Cuttler was lead author – analyzed data from two separate sources: 12,293 sessions where cannabis was used to treat headache, and 7,441 sessions where cannabis was used to treat migraine. “There were significant reductions in headache and migraine ratings after cannabis use,” the report stated, with men reporting larger reductions in headache than women. Though effectiveness appeared to diminish over time – “suggesting tolerance to these effects may develop with continued use” – the report stated that “cannabis does not lead to the medication overuse headache that is associated with other conventional treatments.” Perhaps just as important, the report authors said that further studies are warranted. “We were motivated to do this study because a substantial number of people say they use cannabis for headache and migraine, but surprisingly few studies had addressed the topic,” Cuttler told WSU Insider. “My hope is that this research will motivate researchers to take on the difficult work of conducting placebo-controlled trials,” she added. “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.” And as we all should know, information based on good science is the best way there is to separate fact from fancy.
Dan Webster is former staff writer for The Spokesman-Review staff who is a community producer for Spokane Public Radio and a blogger for Spokane7.com.
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