Pain is a global phenomenon encompassing many subtypes that include neuropathic, musculoskeletal, acute postoperative, cancer, and geriatric pain. Traditionally, opioids have been a mainstay pharmacological agent for managing many types of pain. However, opioids have been a subject of controversy with increased addiction, fatality rates, and cost burden on the US healthcare system. Cannabinoids have emerged as a potentially favorable alternative or adjunctive treatment for various types of acute and chronic pain. This narrative review seeks to describe the efficacy, risks, and benefits of cannabinoids as an adjunct or even potential replacement for opioids in the treatment of various subtypes of pain.
In June of 2022, we performed a comprehensive search across multiple databases for English-language studies related to the use of cannabinoids in the treatment of various types pain: neuropathic pain, musculoskeletal pain, acute postoperative pain, cancer pain, and geriatric pain. Data from meta-analyses, systematic reviews, and randomized control trials (RCTs) were prioritized for reporting. We sought to focus our reported analysis on more recent literature as well as include older relevant studies with particularly notable findings.
There is conflicting evidence for the use of cannabinoids in the management of pain. While cannabinoids have shown efficacy in treating specific chronic pain subtypes such as neuropathic pain, fibromyalgia pain, and geriatric pain, they do not show as clear benefit in acute postoperative and the majority of musculoskeletal pain syndromes. Data trends towards cannabinoids having a positive effect in treating cancer pain, but results are not as conclusive. To date, there is a paucity of data comparing cannabinoids directly to opioids for pain relief. Overall, the side effects of cannabinoids appear to be relatively mild. However, there is still potential for addiction, altered brain development, psychiatric comorbidities, and drug-drug interactions.
Cannabinoids may be effective in specific subtypes of pain, but current evidence and guidelines do not yet support its use as the first-line treatment for any type of acute or chronic pain. Rather, it may be considered a good adjunct or alternative for patients who have failed more typical or conservative measures. Additional studies are needed with standardized forms of cannabinoids, route of delivery, and dosing for greater-powered analysis. Providers must weigh the individualized patient risks, benefits, and concurrent medication list in order to determine whether cannabinoids are appropriate for a patient’s pain treatment plan.

© 2023. The Author(s).