Marijuana May Ease AIDS Patients' Foot Pain
The smoked drug lessens a burning numbness that accompanies the
illness, study finds.
Adding fuel to the debate over medical marijuana, a new
study suggests that AIDS patients can relieve stubborn nerve
pain in their feet by smoking the drug.
On average, patients reported a 34 percent improvement in
foot pain after smoking pot, twice that of those smoking a
weakened form of the drug.
The study is small, and the findings don't reveal why
marijuana may reduce pain. Experts also noted that there's a
potentially distracting side effect to the treatment -- getting
Still, the study findings add support to the idea that
medical marijuana isn't "like some sort of Cheech and Chong
show," said study lead author Dr. Donald I. Abrams, professor
of clinical medicine at the University of California, San
After all, he said, the study has been published in the Feb.
13 issue of Neurology, a respected medical journal.
The study has also re-ignited debate on the thorny issue of
medical marijuana use. In a statement released Tuesday, a
variety of national HIV/AIDS advocacy groups called for
congressional hearings in response to the study findings.
"It's time for Washington to stop playing politics with
patients' lives and advance this important scientific
discovery," Steph Sherer, executive director of Americans for
Safe Access, said in the statement. "The study is a wake-up
call for Congress to hold hearings to investigate therapeutic
use and encourage research."
For his part, UCSD's Abrams said he has studied the medical
effects of marijuana for a decade. The new research examines
its effects on AIDS patients with a condition called
neuropathy, a painful burning numbness that can strike the feet
The condition, which can affect about a third of patients,
is often difficult to treat, Abrams said, and painkillers often
fail to ease the discomfort. In some cases, patients have to
resort to anti-seizure medications.
According to Abrams, research had suggested that marijuana
might be able to treat nerve pain. In the new study, his team
first got approvals from various agencies and then launched a
study using marijuana.
Fifty patients, mostly men, took part in the research. Half
smoked marijuana three times daily for five days. The other
half smoked a weakened form of marijuana. The patients were
then asked to rank their pain on a scale of one to 10.
The patients who smoked the full-strength marijuana reported
a 34 percent reduction in pain, compared to 17 percent among
the other smokers. Half of the full-strength smokers reported
more than a 30 percent reduction in pain, while just 24 percent
of the placebo smokers did.
The side effects were minor, said Abrams, who noted that
"most of these people smoked marijuana to begin with." All had
smoked marijuana at least six times in their lives; the
researchers wanted to make sure they were familiar with pot
smoking and its effects.
The patients did get high, although Abrams said the
marijuana was a weak type -- just 3.56 percent
tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the active ingredient in pot. "We
did measure their level of high, and it didn't seem to
necessarily correlate with their pain relief."
Abrams discounted the possible risk of lung cancer for the
marijuana smokers, saying some research has suggested that they
actually have a lower risk than others. He added that
researchers are looking into possible ways to vaporize
marijuana, which could "deliver a similar amount of THC with
less potential for toxicity."
According to Abrams, it's not clear how marijuana works to
lower pain, but it may reduce inflammation. Other research has
linked substances in marijuana to pain reduction.
David Murray, chief scientist at the White House Office of
National Drug Control Policy, wasn't convinced by the study,
which he said was small and didn't account for the possibility
that the patients who got the placebo marijuana would know they
weren't smoking the real thing.
He added that the drug poses risks for AIDS patients in
particular, because their immune systems are compromised, and
he questioned the risk of smoking a "combustible weed that has
bacteria and fungus" in it.
While Murray acknowledged that cannabinoid-based medications
have a "great deal of promise and potential," he said they need
to be purified first. "Smoked, raw marijuana is not that
avenue. It's a cul-de-sac, it's a dead end," he said.
But another expert had more praise for the study. Dr. Mark
Wallace, professor of clinical anesthesiology and program
director of the Center for Pain Medicine at the University of
California, San Diego, applauded the study, saying it was well
done. "There are very few studies of this kind looking at
inhaled cannabis and pain, and they are difficult to conduct,"
he said. "The authors should be commended."
And what about the fact that patients get high when they
"Although subjects will report high levels of 'highness,' my
studies showed little effect on cognition," Wallace said.
"Other studies have shown little effect on motor tasks. Also,
the pain relief does not seem to correlate with the feeling of
highness, in that when subjects come down from the high, they
continue to feel pain relief."
So, should AIDS patients with nerve pain begin smoking
marijuana? Ask your doctor, Abrams advised.
Our comments: Smoking marijuana has many risks. The
wexposuer to tetrahydracannibinol and how it affects the brain
and othe organs and the exposre to the lungs and the risks of
damage to the lungs and respiratory system from marijuana.