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Pain management is one of the primary reasons patients seek out a medical cannabis recommendation. But, how does the herb stack up post-operation? Does cannabis really help pain after surgery? Here’s how a simple plant fights inflammation, eases pain, and helps patients manage the long-term effects of injury. 

How does cannabis relieve pain?

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Ever wondered what causes pain? After an injury, white blood cells rush to the region. Accompanying these cells is fluid, which builds up to isolate any foreign pathogens and other undesirable impacts to the injury site itself. The increased pressure from fluid and the release of chemicals in the region causes pain.

Needless to say, a surgery is a serious and acute injury. This is especially true with invasive surgeries, though even fairly minor operations can result in significant pain and inflammation. To ease pain, it is necessary to reduce inflammation.

Reducing inflammation relieves the pressure on nerve cells. Fortunately, cannabis has powerful anti-inflammatory properties.

The herb reduces inflammation in a couple of distinct ways. It switches up signals sent by the immune system and directly engages cell sites on nerve cells.  After an injury occurs, the immune system triggers a pro-inflammatory response.

After an injury occurs, the immune system triggers a pro-inflammatory response. This response comes in the form of inflammatory proteins called cytokines.

Pre-clinical research shows that compounds in cannabis can suppress the release of cytokines and increase anti-inflammatory compounds instead. Less inflammation means less pain.

Cannabis and post-surgical pain management

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In the case of post-operative pain, there’s a little more to the story. Immediately after an operation, chances are opioid painkillers will provide the most effective relief.

Opioids work by blocking pain signals altogether, making them highly effective after something as physically traumatic as surgery.

However, here’s where cannabis comes into play. After surgery, patients are likely to experience a period of acute pain. Yet, a high number of patients go on to experience chronic pain.

In fact, one 2010 study has found that 10 to 50% of patients experience post-surgical pain despite taking prescription painkillers. 2 to 10% develop severe, chronic pain that can last longer than six months.

Sound fun? No, not at all. Surgery is very abrasive and shocking to the body and there is still a lot to be discovered when it comes to understanding pain signals and nerve damage.

Many already use cannabis in place of opiates to manage chronic pain symptoms. But, pre-clinical research suggests that cannabis may have a more significant role in pain management than you might expect.

1. The endocannabinoid system and post-operative pain

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The same 2010 study hypothesized that the endocannabinoid system (ECS) plays a role in pain management by controlling pain signals in spinal cord cells.

The spinal cord is a critical information highway that sends messages between the brain and the body. Pain signaling is one of the major roles of the spinal cord.

The ECS is the point of interaction for cannabis in the body. Psychoactive THC, for example, directly engages cell receptors belonging to the endocannabinoid system. Compounds in the herb bind to cell receptors on the spinal cord and change the message.

In fact, a recent study of those with osteoarthritis pain found something similar to the 2010 group. Those suffering severe arthritis pain had an abundance of endocannabinoid receptors on the spinal cord. It’s almost as if the body is crying out for cannabinoid therapy.

When researchers treated patients with a form of synthetic cannabis, the drug effectively reduced inflammation and provided pain relief.

2. Cannabis vs. post-surgical pain

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Another study in 2006 had impressive results with the real herb. The small study followed 65 British patients who had recently undergone surgery.

They were divided into groups and each given different doses of a cannabis extract called Cannador. Cannador contains a 2:1 ratio of THC to CBD, another nonpsychoactive component of the herb.

Patients given 5mg of Cannador all needed a supplemental analgesic. Yet, only six of the 24 patients given 15mg of the extract required additional pain medication. Of the 30 patients who were given 10mg, half needed more drugs.

Lead researcher Dr. Anita Holdcroft explains,

Pain after surgery continues to be a problem because many of the commonly used drugs are either ineffective or have too many side effects. These results show that cannabinoids are effective, and may lead to the development of a wider range of drugs to manage postoperative pain.

While this study is small, the findings are significant. Cannabis was a potent painkiller in relatively low doses and did not produce any serious or harmful side effects.

This is excellent news for patients who experience both acute and chronic post-operative pain.

Interested in the best strains for pain management? Take a look at our article here.

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Delilah Butterfield

Delilah Butterfield is a Pacific Northwest native with a passion for cannabis and natural health. Contact her on Twitter @delilahbfield.
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