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Cannabis Could be a Promising Treatment for Sickle Cell Disease, Clinical Trial Concludes

By Leo Bear-McGuinness

Published: Jul 17, 2020   
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For the thousands of people around the world living with sickle cell disease (SCD), acute and chronic pain can be constant companions.

These painful symptoms are often treated with prescription opioids. But a new clinical trial has found that cannabis could be a promising, and safer, substitute.

Pain and strain

Sickle cell disease is an inherited condition that affects the body’s red blood cells. Particularly common in people with African or Caribbean heritage, the disease can cause painful episodes called sickle cell crises, which can last up to a week.

To investigate whether cannabis could be an effective treatment for these episodes, the authors of the new study organized “the first randomized, placebo-controlled clinical trial of vaporized cannabis in participants with SCD and chronic pain.”

Conducted at the University of California, San Francisco, the study first sourced 90 participants – only 23 of which went on to complete the trial – who all had SCD and prior experience smoking cannabis. The volunteers then inhaled either vaporized cannabis or a placebo at regular intervals and, after a few interims, completed a set of standard pain questionnaires.

Once these data were analyzed, the researchers found no significant differences in pain ratings between the cannabis and placebo groups during general activities, walking, sleeping, or “enjoyment.”

However, while they may not have been deemed significantly different, the mean pain scores of cannabis-using participants were regularly lower than the mean pain scores of the placebo group. But, partially due to the small number of participants in the study, the variability around these means consistently overlapped. So, ultimately, no firm conclusions about marijuana’s possible pain-relieving effects could be made.

Despite this outcome, the researchers remarked the cannabis was well tolerated by the participants. And, in light of the “opioid epidemic” and the subsequent interest in alternative pain medications, cannabis, they say, still has good potential as a SCD treatment.

“People with SCD are often using multiple medications,” they wrote in the study’s conclusion, which was published in JAMA Network Open.

“Since no significant adverse effects were observed, this proof of principle study has the potential to encourage and guide future larger and longer investigations into the potential use of cannabis-based interventions in chronic pain that could help to attenuate the ongoing public health crisis related to opioid use.”


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