Medicinal cannabis can help relieve pain caused by cancer, study finds - what NHS guide says
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Medical cannabis can help relieve pain caused by cancer and reduce the number of drugs patients need, according to Canadian research. A study involving 358 cancer patients led researchers to the conclusion that it was a safe addition to other painkillers.
On the NHS, only specialist hospital doctors can prescribe cannabis-based medicines mostly for severe epilepsy as research on how well they treat pain is still being collected in the UK. The study was published in BMJ Supportive & Palliative Care.
It said researchers found medicinal cannabis to be "a safe and effective complementary treatment for pain relief in patients with cancer". Products with an equal balance of the active ingredients tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD) were found to be the most effective. Cannabis plants contain both but while THC produces a "high", CBD does not.
Of the patients studied, about a quarter took THC-dominant products, 38% took THC-CBD balanced drugs and 17% took CBD-dominant products. The most common side-effects displayed were dizziness and fatigue.
Researchers from McGill University in Montreal, Harvard Medical School in Boston, and the Royal College of Surgeons in Dublin, among others, report that approximately one-third of cancer patients and two-thirds of terminally ill patients experience moderate to severe pain.
Painkillers are the standard treatment, but it is believed that one-third of cancer patients still experience discomfort. Once every three months for a year, the patients were asked how much pain they felt and how many medications they were taking. After taking cannabis-based medications, they reported significantly less pain and less interference with their daily lives.
The findings, however, must be confirmed by more rigorous trials comparing the effects of cannabis remedies with a placebo, according to the researchers. Since 2018, the United Kingdom has permitted the prescription of unlicensed cannabis-based medications in extremely specific circumstances.
These circumstances include, for children and adults with rare, severe forms of epilepsy, for adults with vomiting or nausea caused by chemotherapy and for people with muscle stiffness and spasms caused by multiple sclerosis (MS).
A Department of Health and Social Care official told the BBC: "Licensed cannabis-based medicines are funded routinely by the NHS where there is clear evidence of their quality, safety and effectiveness.
"Like any other medicine, unlicensed cannabis-based products for medicinal use must be proved safe and effective before they can be considered for routine NHS funding.
"We are working closely with partners to establish clinical trials to test the safety and efficacy of more cannabis-based products for medicinal use to inform future NHS funding decisions."