Migraines are the third most prevalent illness in the world, affecting an estimated 1 billion people worldwide. Incredibly, despite the prevalence of this malady, traditional medicine has yet to offer an answer.
It’s not that there aren’t treatments for migraines; it’s that many people find these treatments don’t work. In some cases, the treatments themselves cause other serious problems. Meanwhile, migraine sufferers are going through hell, suffering pain, nausea, dizziness and more–sometimes for days on end.
Given the number of people who suffer from these debilitating headaches, there’s real urgency to study alternative ways of treating migraine headaches. The latest of these? Cannabis.
But, there are enough questions about cannabis and migraines that a simple internet search on the subject can easily become a headache all its own. Fortunately, we’ve saved you the trouble.
What is a migraine headache?
A migraine is an attack on the central nervous system. Along with the pain we might expect from a severe headache, a migraine can cause nausea, vomiting, and intestinal issues.
In the grip of a migraine, people can’t handle normal sensory stimuli: daylight may feel like being stabbed in the eyes, the fabric of a pillow might feel like burning, even the softest sound might seem like rifle fire at close range. This can go on for hours or even days.
Can cannabis help with migraines?
Medical professionals and scientists have been interested in the possibility that cannabis can help with migraines for decades. In 1998, two years after California legalized the medical use of marijuana for patients with AIDS, cancer, and other diseases, the International Society for the Study of Pain published a review of literature on this topic, calling for further research on the power of cannabis on migraine headaches.
Medical professionals heeded that call, and recent studies suggest that cannabis can help with migraines in two ways: decreasing pain and decreasing the frequency of migraine attacks.
An expert’s opinion
Weinberg, whose background includes both internal and emergency medicine, says that, in his experience, cannabis can be helpful with migraines.
Migraines generally have underlying vascular causes, and once the headaches get started, Weinberg said “you get secondary pain and spasms, muscle tightening in the neck and occipital areas.”
The symptoms really suck.
The pain associated with migraines has a great deal to do with the body’s reaction to the migraine, and is greatly involved in the prolonging and worsening suffering. “Cannabis can help with the inflammation and spasming which underlie the headache pain,” Weinberg said.
How does cannabis work on migraines?
Animal research suggests that CBD is neuroprotectant, so, in other words, can protect against attacks on the neural system, which is exactly what a migraine is. THC is helpful in muscle spasticity. CBD is also good for pain and inflammation,” according to Weinberg.
In a 2017 study, The European Pharmaceutical Review found that, when given the correct dose, migraine sufferers reported that acute pain dropped 55%. Interestingly, only in women test subjects did other symptoms, like muscle pain, nausea, and colitis, also decrease.
Weinberg has prescribed cannabis treatment to patients for migraines with great success, citing not only an end to the complete debilitation of these headaches, but also a general lift in his patients’ spirits. With options to control and mitigate their migraine pain and symptoms, their sense of optimism greatly offsets the depression and hopelessness associated with chronic illness.
Could cannabis actually make a migraine worse?
As with most drugs, cannabis will affect different people’s migraines differently, including (and this is quite worrisome), increasing the severity of symptoms. Studies show factors such as genetics, gender, age, overall health, and tolerance can change a person’s experience with cannabis as a treatment for migraine.
Another factor is timing. Some experts caution that staying ahead of the pain is key: if someone catches a migraine early, cannabis can help, but if that person waits too long, cannabis can actually make it worse.
Stopping Migraines from Coming in the First Place
Some studies show the correct dosing and formulation of a cannabinoid medication can help prevent migraines altogether. The most promising results were found in test subjects who inhaled, rather than ingested cannabis (perhaps because it can be harder to gauge when and if a dose is working with edibles). Many studies note the more rapid effect of smoking cannabis as opposed to eating it, although eating it may make effects last longer.
Recent research suggests that medical cannabis use fosters long-term reduction of migraine frequency. This is especially important because traditional medications used for migraines, such as triptans and opioids, can cause their own seriously adverse effects.
Not all Migraines are Created Equal
Again, this science is new, and it’s not guaranteed. The type of cannabis product used matters (THC, CBD, or a combination of both), but the best type can vary. It’s not just factors like age and gender at play: other factors are important to consider. Dehydrated patients, for example, may suffer rebound headaches when using cannabis therapy. And here too, timing is everything. Using the treatment before an attack is key.
Overall, the science looks promising
As Weinberg put it, “We are still learning about this, but ultimately, there are so many beneficial properties in cannabis with the ability to work specifically on the systems of the body most under attack.
Looks like overall, cannabis might offer real promise to those 1 billion people suffering from migraines on this planet.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This article has been updated to correct the following claims: CBD (not THC) is neuroprotective, and one of the underlying causes of migraines is tightening in the occipital areas (not occidental areas.)
Anna Marie Erwert is a freelance writer at Greenstate, and fan of all things natural medicine. Her work can be also be found on SFGate and the Seattle PI. Send feedback and tips to email@example.com.