Chronic pain is pain that lasts more than several months (variously defined as 3 to 6 months, but longer than “normal healing”). It’s a very common problem. Results from the 2012 National Health Interview Survey show that:
- About 25.3 million U.S. adults (11.2 percent) had pain every day for the previous 3 months.
- Nearly 40 million adults (17.6 percent) had severe pain.
- Individuals with severe pain had worse health, used more health care, and had more disability than those with less severe pain.
Chronic pain becomes more common as people grow older, at least in part because health problems that can cause pain, such as osteoarthritis, become more common with advancing age. Military veterans are another group at increased risk for chronic pain; U.S. national survey data show that both pain in general and severe pain are more common among veterans than nonveterans.
Not all people with chronic pain have a health problem diagnosed by a health care provider, but among those who do, the most frequent conditions by far are low-back pain or osteoarthritis, according to a national survey. Other common diagnoses include rheumatoid arthritis, migraine, carpal tunnel syndrome, and fibromyalgia. The annual economic cost of chronic pain in the United States, including both treatment and lost productivity, has been estimated at up to $635 billion.
Chronic pain may result from an underlying disease or health condition, an injury, medical treatment (such as surgery), inflammation, or a problem in the nervous system (in which case it is called “neuropathic pain”); or the cause may be unknown. Pain can affect quality of life and productivity, and it may be accompanied by difficulty in moving around, disturbed sleep, anxiety, depression, and other problems.
In adults with chronic pain, patients who were treated with cannabis or cannabinoids are more likely to experience a clinically significant reduction in pain symptoms.
Cannabis sativa has a long history as a medicinal plant, likely dating back more than two millennia (Russo et al., 2007). It was available as a licensed medicine in the United States for about a century before the American Medical Association removed it from the 12th edition of the U.S. Pharmacopeia (IOM, 1999). In 1985, pharmaceutical companies received approval to begin developing Δ9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) preparations—dronabinol and nabilone—for therapeutic use, and as a result, cannabinoids were reintroduced into the armamentarium of willing health care providers (Grotenhermen and Müller-Vahl, 2012). Efforts are now being put into the trials of cannabidiol as a treatment for conditions such as epilepsy and schizophrenia,1 although no such preparations have come to market at this time. Nabiximols, an oromucosal spray of a whole cannabis plant extract with a 1:1 ratio of THC to cannabidiol (CBD), was initially licensed and approved in Europe, the United Kingdom, and Canada for the treatment of pain and spasticity associated with multiple sclerosis (GW Pharmaceuticals, 2016; Pertwee, 2012), but it continues to undergo evaluation in Phase III clinical trials in the United States.2 Efforts are under way to develop targeted pharmaceuticals that are agonists or antagonists of the cannabinoid receptors or that modulate the production and degradation of the endocannabinoids, although such interventions have not yet demonstrated safety or effectiveness. Nonetheless, therapeutic agents targeting cannabinoid receptors and endocannabinoids are expected to become available in the future.
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