Fibromyalgia, meet cannabis
In many ways, the disorder fibromyalgia and the plant cannabis sativa are similar. Like fibromyalgia, cannabis has been around for centuries. In the same way that the medical benefits of cannabis are being researched and our understanding is evolving, we still have much to learn about fibromyalgia and treatments. While many people are skeptical of medicinal cannabis, there are still those who question the legitimacy of fibromyalgia as a disorder. It would seem that fibromyalgia and cannabis are a disorder and medicine cut from the same cloth.
In this article you’ll learn about fibromyalgia and how medical cannabis is (and isn’t) helping patients with this disorder. You’ll learn a brief history of the disorder which is important because it shows how much (and how little) we still know about fibromyalgia. Next you’ll learn about what fibromyalgia is and the symptoms people experience. Finally, you’ll see what the research on cannabis and fibromyalgia is saying and we’ll answer the question, “Can marijuana treat fibromyalgia?”
If you’d like to skip ahead in this article here are a list of the major sections:
- Fibromyalgia and the endocannabinoid system
- Fibromyalgia and Clinical Endocannabinoid Deficiency (CED)
- Is medical marijuana a good treatment for fibromyalgia?
- Can cannabis help with fibromyalgia pain?
- Can cannabis help with sleep deprivation in fibromyalgia?
- Patient well-being and cannabis
Before you begin, it is important to note that THC and CBD will not cure your fibromyalgia. However as you’ll soon see, many people who have fibro are turning to cannabis for relief.
A Brief and Important History of Fibromyalgia
Fibromyalgia is a disorder that’s been affecting individuals for centuries. Our understanding of the disorder has transformed over time and is still evolving. Fibromyalgia can be traced back to the early 1500s where a French physician, Guillaume de Baillou, first used the term “rheumatism.”
Between the 1500s and the 1900s multiple terms were used for conditions with inflammation and pain. In 1904 Sir William Growers coined the term “fibrositis” for a condition that was defined by many of the symptoms seen in modern day fibromyalgia patients.
In 1972 a doctor named Smyth published a paper which mentioned widespread pain, tender points and explained sleep disturbances in detail. Finally, in 1976 the term fibrositis was renamed fibromyalgia. As of 2019 scientists and doctors are still learning a huge amount about the disorder.
As evident through its history, fibromyalgia and treatments for this disorder have been evolving since first discovered. While science and medicine continue to improve drastically, in many ways, fibromyalgia is still a mystery.
What is Fibromyalgia?
Fibromyalgia is a disorder which doctors believe inhibits the way that your brain and spinal cord process pain signals from nerves. Scientists believe that an individual’s pain receptors develop a “memory” of the pain and become more sensitive to that pain in the future. Fibromyalgia (fibro) is more common in women than men and those who have fibro often have other diagnoses such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS).
The pain that results from fibromyalgia can be different for each individual. Individuals with fibromyalgia often experience pain that is widespread throughout the body and can dissipate or persist for long periods of time.
Common symptoms of fibromyalgia are:
- Widespread pain
- Extreme fatigue (exhaustion)
- Poor sleep
- Problems with concentration and memory (aka fibro fog)
- Irritable bowel syndrome – IBS
- Anxiety and depression
In order to explain how cannabis (and CBD oil) may help with the symptoms of fibromyalgia, it’s important to understand a bit about the endocannabinoid system (ECS) and how cannabinoids impact your body. You’ll then understand how cannabinoids and cannabis may help fibromyalgia.
Fibromyalgia and The Endocannabinoid System
The endocannabinoid system (ECS) is a cell signalling system (think of a traffic controller) in your body which regulates numerous bodily functions helping you remain balanced. Today, research has linked the ECS to the following bodily functions / feelings:
- Chronic pain
- Inflammation and other immune system responses
- Learning and memory
- And more
For example, if you get an injury which causes inflammation, the ECS kicks into gear and begins to help with the recovery of that inflammation.
The ECS is made up of two main parts:
- Endocannabinoids – molecules that send messages
- Cannabinoid receptors – the receiver of the messages.
CB1 receptors are found in your central nervous system. The central nervous system is responsible for regulating pain. It’s important to note cannabis has cannabinoids which can impact or help modulate the endocannabinoid system. More on this shortly.
Fibromyalgia and Clinical Endocannabinoid Deficiency (CED)
CED is a theory that proposes lower endocannabinoid levels in ones body can lead to conditions like IBS, fibromyalgia and other treatment resistant disorders.
In 1998 research showed that endocannabinoids could reduce hyperalgesia, an increased sensitivity to pain. This finding has led researchers to believe that cannabis, or specific cannabinoids in cannabis, can help treat certain symptoms of fibromyalgia. What has been proven time and again, is that cannabinoid therapy can help the endocannabinoid system operate more smoothly. CBD helps to stimulate endocannabinoid release and other binding of molecules within your system.
Now you can see the link between cannabis and fibromyalgia from a scientific and treatment perspective. Remember, research on cannabis and CED is relatively new. Far more research, particularly longitudinal studies, need to be completed.
So, is Medical Marijuana a Good Treatment for Fibromyalgia?
Here we’ll quickly explain the two most popular cannabinoids in cannabis and show you the research on some of the main fibro symptoms: pain, sleep disruption and anxiety and depression. The two most well known medicinal cannabinoids in cannabis are cannabidiol (CBD) and delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). These cannabinoids, as discussed earlier, can help to modulate the endocannabinoid system
With regard to fibromyalgia symptoms, CBD is known to have properties such as:
- Mild pain relief
- Muscle relaxant
- Anxiety reduction
- Helps insomnia
With regard to fibromyalgia symptoms, THC is known to have properties such as:
- Pain relief / lower muscle tension
- Mild anti-inflammatory
- Sleep improvement
There are studies that show, in some cases, CBD and THC can help treat fibromyalgia. Other studies show that there hasn’t been a positive effect on fibro patients.
The short answer is that cannabis has helped a number of patients with fibromyalgia. Your healthcare professional will be able to help you decide if cannabis is right for you. After finishing the next sections, you’ll have enough information to make a fully informed decision as to whether you think you should speak with your doctor about medical marijuana.
Can Cannabis Help Treat Fibromyalgia Pain?
When researching cannabis to treat fibromyalgia, pain is the top symptom fibro suffers want relief from. Chronic pain is one of the most approved conditions for medical cannabis in Australia. There have been quite a few studies done on chronic pain in adults and cannabis but again, very few that relate specifically to fibro.
Fibromyalgia and Cannabis Specific Studies:
In 2011, a study of 28 fibromyalgia sufferers concluded that approximately 86% of patients reported mild to strong relief of pain from the use of medical cannabis. The remaining patients reported no change in pain.
Other Science That has Implications for Fibromyalgia
In 2017, The National Academies Press (NAP), published a review of numerous cannabis studies. With regard to chronic pain, the NAP concluded there is “substantial evidence that cannabis is an effective treatment for chronic pain in adults.”
Also in 2017, a study (survey) of 1000 pain-related cannabis users were asked the question, “How effective is medical cannabis in treating your symptoms or conditions [on a scale of 0 to 100]?” The average response was 74.7%. Individuals were also asked, “What do you like most about medical cannabis,” and “What do you like least about medical cannabis?”
Over a third of respondents to the positive theme question were medical / health benefits, with answers like:
- “It stops the pain”
- “Changes perception and experience of my chronic pain,”
- “It’s been life changing for my pain.”
- “I feel no pain…anyone who hasn’t had chronic pain would not even understand how good it feels to even have it gone for a few hours.”
To the negative questions, the top 3 most popular categories of responses were:
- Economic (cost of medicating) – 28.4%
- Olfactory (the smell) – 21.7%
- Stigma (the way others look at you for using cannabis) – 11.4%
An important factor about the studies listed above that is all studies except for the NAP review were on patients who were self medicating with cannabis, not prescribed by a doctor. The indications from patients are strong, and the NAP review proves substantial evidence that cannabis can treat pain. However, without having numerous controlled studies, there is no conclusive answer as to whether cannabis can treat fibromyalgia pain. More research must be done.
If you are having issues with chronic pain as a result of fibromyalgia, talk to your doctor or a medical cannabis specialist about whether cannabis might be the right medication to help with your pain.
Can Cannabis Help with Sleep Deprivation in Fibromyalgia?
Sleep is one of the best ways to reduce many of the fibro symptoms however due to pain, patients often have trouble sleeping. Historically, cannabis is thought to make people more lazy. Perhaps marijuana can help with sleep deprivation in fibro?
There have been limited studies on sleep depravation in fibromyaliga and cannabinoid treatment. The studies that exist for fibromyalgia specifically, have only treated patients with cannabis over a short period of time. There are however two cannabis focussed medical studies that have been noteworthy in symptom reduction thus allowing for better sleep.
Fibro and Cannabis Specific Studies:
In 2011 a study on medical cannabis and fibromyalgia was published. Participants used cannabis for a range of symptoms and consumed their medication by smoking and/or eating it. The results found that 81% of patients reported strong relief from sleep disorders.
A 2010 study from Canada which used a synthetic THC, showed that over short periods of time cannabis could improve sleep in fibromyalgia patients. In this study, no improvements on pain, mood or quality of life were observed.
Study With Implications for Fibromyalgia
In a 2007 study on patients with varying conditions, researchers were able to show that a 1:1 ratio of CBD to THC medication gave 40-50% of subjects good or very good sleep quality. Each of these conditions had chronic pain as a major symptom.
The result of this study is that the impact of cannabis on sleep problems relating to fibromyalgia warrants further research. If you’re struggling to sleep due to fibromyalgia, you may want to consult your doctor or a medicinal cannabis specialist to see if cannabis is right for you.
What About Patient Well-being and Cannabis?
One factor that we haven’t discussed is overall patient well-being. For many individuals who suffer from fibromyalgia, their quality of life is diminished by the symptoms of the disorder. Patients regularly have anxiety and depression as a result of other symptoms. With any medication, a doctor not only looks at the medical outcomes, but also the perceived well-being the patient has from taking a medication.
In both the cannabis survey from 2017 and the 2011 fibro and cannabis study a majority of patients perceived a greater overall well being after cannabis treatment. Patients from the survey made some of the following comments:
- “lets me live a more productive life and a more fulfilling one”
- “It gives me the ability to function throughout the day”
- “I am more active and able to do things I want”
- “Distracts me from the pain and dwelling on negative thoughts”
- “I can think more clearly”
While a sense of well-being is not treatment in itself, a positive sense of well being should be a goal for any fibromyalgia treatment plan.
Many people are turning to cannabis for relief from their fibromyalgia symptoms and are having success. While marijuana is not clinically proven to treat all symptoms of fibromyalgia, there is evidence that cannabis is effective at treating certain symptoms. It appears that cannabis may help fibro patients sleep better and find some relief from chronic pain.
While there is still stigma around cannabis in Australia, it’s important that you don’t let other people’s opinions stop you from getting the medicine you need to treat your condition. If you believe that cannabis might be right for you, consult your doctor or healthcare professional.
To learn more about CBD for fibromyalgia, you can watch this two part video series titled “CBD for fibromyalgia” by Dr. Ginevra Liptan (a fibromyalgia specialist from the US).
Fibromyalgia is difficult enough for the person experiencing it, so please be supportive, loving and understanding to those who do. If someone you love has fibromyalgia and is considering cannabis, please pass this information along. Your voice and support will make a difference in that individual’s life.
This article is dedicated to Cara, who suffers from fibromyalgia. We love you!