Researchers from the University of British Columbia have found that frequent cannabis use is not associated with increased pain sensitivity, unlike with long-term opioid use.
Sustained opioid use is known to make people more reactive to pain in something known as hyperalgesia. This increased sensitivity causes them to use more of the drug to dull their pain, making them more likely to develop an addiction. Given cannabis's increasing popularity as a drug for pain relief, the researchers wanted to understand whether it has the same effects as opioids in increasing pain sensitivity.
To test the idea, they recruited 40 people who used cannabis more than three times per week alongside 40 people who do not use the substance. Each person was subjected to a cold-pressor task test, in which they submerged their hand in icy water for a certain period of time. Measures on pain sensitivity, pain tolerance, and pain intensity were then taken from the two groups and compared.
In the end, the researchers found that people who use cannabis regularly did not experience any meaningful differences in measures of pain tolerance, sensitivity, or intensity when compared to non-users. This, they say, means that cannabis does not reduce one's sensitivity to pain and thus does not carry the same risk factors as opioids. Ultimately, they hope their findings will go on to inform health providers' pain relief recommendations.
"This is an important distinction that care providers and patients should consider when selecting options for pain management." says lead author of the study, Michelle St. Pierre. "These findings are particularly relevant in light of recent reports of opioid overprescribing and high rates of pain in the population, as it suggests that cannabis may not carry the same risk of hyperalgesia as opioids."