Five good- to fair-quality systematic reviews were identified. Of those five reviews, Whiting et al. (2015) was the most comprehensive, both in terms of the target medical conditions and in terms of the cannabinoids tested. Snedecor et al. (2013) was narrowly focused on pain related to spinal cord injury, did not include any studies that used cannabis, and only identified one study investigating cannabinoids (dronabinol). Two reviews on pain related to rheumatoid arthritis did not contribute unique studies or findings (Fitzcharles et al., 2016; Richards et al., 2012). Finally, one review (Andreae et al., 2015) conducted a Bayesian analysis of five primary studies of peripheral neuropathy that had tested the efficacy of cannabis in flower form administered via inhalation. Two of the primary studies in that review were also included in the Whiting review, while the other three were not. It is worth noting that the conclusions across all of the reviews were largely consistent in suggesting that cannabinoids demonstrate a modest effect on pain. For the purposes of this discussion, the primary source of information for the effect on cannabinoids on chronic pain was the review by Whiting et al. (2015). Whiting et al. (2015) included RCTs that compared cannabinoids to usual care, a placebo, or no treatment for 10 conditions. Where RCTs were unavailable for a condition or outcome, nonrandomized studies, including uncontrolled studies, were considered. This information was supplemented by a search of the primary literature from April 2015 to August 2016 as well as by additional context from Andreae et al. (2015) that was specific to the effects of inhaled cannabinoids.
The rigorous screening approach used by Whiting et al. (2015) led to the identification of 28 randomized trials in patients with chronic pain (2,454 participants). Twenty-two of these trials evaluated plant-derived cannabinoids (nabiximols, 13 trials; plant flower that was smoked or vaporized, 5 trials; THC oramucosal spray, 3 trials; and oral THC, 1 trial), while 5 trials evaluated synthetic THC (i.e., nabilone). All but 1 of the selected primary trials used a placebo control, while the remaining trial used an active comparator (amitriptyline). The medical condition underlying the chronic pain was most often related to a neuropathy (17 trials); other conditions included cancer pain, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, musculoskeletal issues, and chemotherapy-induced pain. Analyses across 7 trials that evaluated nabiximols and 1 that evaluated the effects of inhaled cannabis suggested that plant-derived cannabinoids increase the odds for improvement of pain by approximately 40 percent versus the control condition (odds ratio [OR], 1.41, 95% confidence interval [CI] = 0.99–2.00; 8 trials). The effects did not differ significantly across pain conditions, although it was not clear that there was adequate statistical power to test for such differences.
Only 1 trial (n = 50) that examined inhaled cannabis was included in the effect size estimates from Whiting et al. (2015). This study (Abrams et al., 2007) also indicated that cannabis reduced pain versus a placebo (OR, 3.43, 95% CI = 1.03–11.48). It is worth noting that the effect size for inhaled cannabis is consistent with a separate recent review of 5 trials of the effect of inhaled cannabis on neuropathic pain (Andreae et al., 2015). The pooled ORs from these trials contributed to the Bayesian pooled effect estimate of 3.22 for pain relief versus placebo (95% CI = 1.59–7.24) tested across 9 THC concentrations. There was also some evidence of a dose-dependent effect in these studies
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