An introduction to arthritis
Arthritis is one of the most common conditions that people of all kinds experience around the world. In the UK alone, over 10 million people struggle with arthritis or related joint conditions. There are more than 100 different types of arthritis, and it doesn’t only affect the elderly. Many types, such as juvenile-onset arthritis and ankylosing spondylitis, can develop in adolescence.
The primary types of arthritis are rheumatoid arthritis, which is an autoimmune disease causing inflammation, and osteoarthritis, which is a degenerative condition that weakens cartilage and bones. The other primary categories of arthritis include fibromyalgia, an abnormal pain condition, and gout, which involves a build-up of uric acid crystals.
Arthritis is synonymous with joint pain, which can develop gradually or come on suddenly, and can affect one or multiple joints. Though it’s common in older people and there’s likely a genetic factor, arthritis can occur at any age, for people of any gender or ethnicity. In some cases, performing repetitive manual labour in certain lines of work can increase the risk of developing arthritis.
What happens when you have arthritis?
Across the different types of arthritis, many of the symptoms are similar. The main symptoms of arthritis are stiffness and swelling in and around the joints, causing pain and discomfort and limiting the range of motion. This can often result in fatigue and a loss of independent function, as arthritis can severely impact the ability to perform daily activities.
Arthritis can occur in any joint, but it most commonly affects the hands, including the wrists and fingers, and the knees, hips, and spine. It can often develop in ankles and toes as well. Some types of arthritis can damage other tissues throughout the body, including the eyes and lungs. The pain, restricted movement, and resulting muscle weakness can also lead to further health issues such as weight loss, sleeping problems, and depression or anxiety.
Unfortunately, there is no cure for arthritis, but there are treatments to help slow down the rate of tissue damage and allow patients to manage their pain levels. With such a high prevalence of arthritis in the population, it’s unsurprising that there is a growing interest in the use of medical cannabis to treat this progressive and painful condition. Let’s explore the evidence supporting the use of cannabis for arthritis.
Medical cannabis and arthritis: what does the evidence say?
Cannabis has many chemical constituents, and two such cannabinoids are a source of interest for research into alternative pain relief therapies. The most common is CBD (cannabidiol), which does not cause a high, while THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) is psychoactive.
It’s believed that the anti-inflammatory properties of these cannabinoids decrease swelling and block pain messengers in the body, which is helpful for relieving such symptoms of arthritis. Relieving pain and slowing disease progression can then contribute to better sleep and a better quality of life overall for those restricted by arthritic pain.
Understandably, people want to know that the science behind such statements is accurate before signing up for CBD treatments themselves. Here are several examples of published research into the effects of CBD and THC on arthritis symptoms over the previous 15 years:
- 2006 – A human trial found that Sativex oral spray (containing CBD and THC) provided a ‘significant analgesic effect’ for rheumatoid arthritis patients and suppressed disease activity.1
- 2011 – A study on male Wistar rats with arthritis found that CBD affects the way that atypical pain receptors respond to stimuli, suggesting further research into targeting these novel receptors to reduce inflammation and pain.2
- 2014 – A review of the existing research on the effects of CBD on arthritic animals concluded that CBD could be an effective treatment for osteoarthritis, and that the endocannabinoid system is ‘an emerging therapeutic target for osteoarthritis pain’.3
- 2016 – Another study on arthritic rats found that applying CBD gel significantly reduced swelling and pain, without psychoactive side effects.4
- 2017 – A review found that selected cannabinoids led to a ‘significant, but clinically small’ pain reduction in patients with chronic neuropathic pain, with larger and more specific trials required to learn more about dosages, durations, and long-term physical and psychological effects.5
- 2017 – Another study on rats also found that local administration of CBD blocked osteoarthritis pain and prevented inflammation.6
- 2018 – A randomised pre-clinical trial in Australia found that male osteoarthritis patients using 250mg of topical CBD reported a greater pain reduction than those using a placebo, though there was little variability for female patients.7
- 2019 – A review found that cannabinoids could be a suitable treatment for rheumatoid arthritis, but more clinical studies must focus on targeting specific pain receptors.8
- 2019 – A Danish study found that patients with rheumatoid arthritis and ankylosing spondylitis reported a reduction in pain after 12 weeks of using CBD, and an improvement in quality of life after 24-36 weeks, with THC add-ons for those who didn’t respond to CBD treatment after 12 weeks.9
- 2020 – A New Zealand review concluded that the endocannabinoid system does play a role in pain and inflammation, but while products such as Sativex have some efficacy for arthritis, more studies are still needed on the endocannabinoid system and the long-term effects of medicinal cannabis.10
As you can see, the studies on rats gave positive indications for the use of cannabinoids in treating arthritis, as did the majority of the studies on humans. That said, the research into the long-term effects and precise dosages for human beings is still in the early stages. Though official research is lacking, many people have already been using cannabinoids to treat painful conditions for years.
According to the Arthritis Foundation in America, at least 79% of their survey respondents have used or intend to use CBD, while 29% currently use CBD specifically to manage their arthritis symptoms. Patients using CBD reported experiencing not just pain relief, but also improved sleep and physical function, with reduced symptoms of anxiety and depression.
There’s no shortage of anecdotal evidence from arthritis patients who benefit from cannabis-based treatments. This is partially the reason that it’s already legal for registered medical specialists to prescribe cannabis-based medicinal products in the UK, but only for patients with cancer or chronic neuropathic pain when first-line treatments have failed.
Arthritis and the endocannabinoid system
So, how exactly do cannabinoids help with joint pain conditions such as arthritis? As mentioned earlier, the two most-researched compounds of the cannabis sativa plant are CBD and THC. However, the human body actually produces its own cannabis-like products – ‘endocannabinoids’ such as AEA (anandamide) and 2-AG (2-arachidonyl) – which researchers are also investigating.
The endocannabinoid system in the human body has 2 receptors, known as CB1 and CB2. It’s believed that cannabinoid-sensitive receptors like these are present in multiple tissues, including joints, bones, skin, and nerves – as seen in arthritic patients undergoing knee surgery. When CBD and THC encounter these receptors, they act like fat-based neurotransmitters, activating the receptors and blocking the progression of pain and inflammation.11
A Chinese study found unusually high levels of CB2 receptors in the joints of patients with rheumatoid arthritis, suggesting that targeting these specific receptors could help to treat the condition.12 As several of the studies listed above found, the fact that cannabinoid-based treatments target symptoms of arthritis via these receptors, specifically inflammation and pain, makes CBD and THC especially promising treatments for arthritic conditions.
CB1 receptors are mostly found in the central nervous system, while CB2 receptors are primarily found in the immune system.13 CBD most strongly impacts CB2 receptors, encouraging the body to produce more of its own cannabinoids, which in turn affects the body’s pain and inflammation responses. THC interacts most strongly with CB1 receptors, affecting cognitive co-ordination activities such as thinking, mood, and appetite.14
All the evidence points to the idea that, if the correct strain and dosage can be found, cannabinoid-based medicine can directly target the relevant receptors and effectively block inflammation and pain signals. In turn, reduced pain and swelling can improve related symptoms such as fatigue and poor mental health.
How does cannabis compare to current treatments for arthritis?
There are several categories of treatments for arthritis, and each individual patient is likely to require a tailored approach according to their specific circumstances. Current possible arthritis treatments include, but are not limited to:
- Therapies such as physiotherapy, hydrotherapy, massage, acupuncture
- Lifestyle changes like exercise, yoga, and conscious joint care (adjusting lifting, pushing, or pulling behaviours to reduce strain on the joints)
- Medications including painkillers, non-steroid anti-inflammatory drugs, or disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs
- Surgeries such as hip or knee joint replacements
In cases of severe chronic pain, patients can develop a tolerance to medications until they no longer work, or become addicted to prescription medications such as opiates.15 As cannabis is less addictive and rarely causes negative side effects, it’s an ideal option when first-line treatments don’t have the desired effects upon painful conditions like arthritis.
Another benefit is that there are many versions of cannabinoid products with various application methods, such as CBD oil for arthritis, which can be ingested orally or used as a topical ointment. This makes it easier to tailor its use to individual needs.
Despite the symptom-relieving and disease-slowing potential, it can still be difficult for patients to purchase cannabis oil for arthritis, or any other form of medicinal cannabis in the UK. Current regulations allow clinicians on the General Medical Council’s Specialist Register to prescribe medicinal cannabis for arthritis due to the chronic pain it causes.
At Cannabis Access Clinics, our specialist doctors and consultants can assess your suitability and decide whether cannabis could be helpful in treating your arthritis. Find out more about what the process looks like on our website, or book an eligibility consultation online to start your journey with medicinal cannabis for arthritis today.
What causes arthritis?
With over 100 forms of arthritis, even the experts don’t know the direct cause for most of the different types. We know that excessive uric acid is the cause of gout, but the source of other types of arthritis remains unclear as research continues. There are three major areas of investigation.
Firstly, family history and genetics can influence the likelihood of developing arthritis. Secondly, things that may happen to you during your life, such as physical accidents or contracting certain infections, could also cause arthritis to develop. Thirdly, your lifestyle is a massive influence.
For example, if you have an intensely physical job or play a lot of sports that strain your joints, this can weaken them and lead to arthritis. On the other hand, not getting enough exercise and being overweight can also put stress on your joints. Bad habits like smoking cigarettes also contribute.
There are risk factors for arthritis that you can change to decrease the chances of arthritis developing, or to prevent it from getting worse if it already occurs. These include adjusting your occupation and exercise habits to low-impact activities, losing weight, and quitting cigarettes.
Unfortunately, there are some arthritis risk factors that you can’t modify. These include your age, gender, and genetics. Arthritis commonly develops as people get older, and some types are more common in women, while others are more common in men. Of course, you can’t change your DNA.
Similarly, we don’t have much control over catching bacterial or viral infections that can cause joint problems. What you can control is going to the doctor and getting the appropriate treatment quickly if your joints are swollen, painful, warm, or red – this could be a sign of an infection in the joint.
How is arthritis diagnosed?
It’s crucial to get an arthritis diagnosis as early as possible, so you can take the necessary actions to prevent the condition from getting any worse. Some symptoms can develop slowly over years, while others can have a sudden onset, but it’s important to see your doctor and report arthritis symptoms.
A medical professional should take a look if you experience swelling, stiffness, or pain either in or around your joints in any case. It will help your doctor if you record your symptoms in a diary, noting the location and severity of the pain, when it occurs, and what you were doing before it happens.
When you visit your doctor to discuss arthritis symptoms, they’ll take you through some physical tests to assess the range of motion in your joints and your overall mobility. They will consider your full medical history and current overall health, in case a different condition is causing the problem.
Then, your doctor is likely to refer you for X-rays or other scans, and perhaps laboratory tests of your blood, urine, or joint fluid. These tests will help to rule out other causes and narrow down the type of arthritis. It’s possible to have multiple types of arthritis at once, which can be harder to diagnose.
It may take several visits to the doctor before they can give you a definitive diagnosis of a specific type of arthritis. The sooner they can identify your condition, the sooner you can treat it. This is vital in slowing the onset of arthritis and preventing irreversible joint damage that can occur early on.
Is medical cannabis for arthritis right for me?
Medical marijuana, in any form, is considered a complementary therapy. It can only be prescribed in cases where the patient experiences consistent debilitating pain and no other treatment provides adequate relief. Your GP cannot prescribe medical cannabis for arthritis – only a specialist can.
You can ask your GP to refer you to a specialist if you believe that you’re eligible for a medical cannabis prescription, or you can refer yourself to a private provider like Cannabis Access Clinics. You’ll undergo a free eligibility check before we decide whether to proceed with a full consultation.
Experts will assess your suitability and determine the most appropriate dosage of CBD and/or THC, and the most appropriate method (e.g. edibles, inhaling vapour, sublingual oil drops, or topical balm). You will be monitored throughout the treatment, which will be adjusted as/if required.
Whether you receive medical cannabis treatment for arthritis from an NHS provider or private provider, they’ll follow the latest clinical guidance and comply with the latest laws. Specialists prescribing medicinal cannabis are monitored by the local Controlled Drugs Accountable Office.
The effectiveness of cannabis for treating arthritis can vary from person to person, and often depends on achieving a careful balance between CBD/THC and other therapies. Your specialist will make sure that the cannabis treatment doesn’t interact negatively with other medicines.
If you’re unsure about medicinal cannabis due to it still being an experimental treatment, it’s worth trying if you’ve exhausted all other avenues for pain relief. You’d also be contributing to important medical cannabis research that could lead to wider legalisation and improved access in the future.
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