According to Medical News Today, chronic pain affects more people than heart disease, cancer, and diabetes combined in 2021. It is the most prevalent cause of disability for people in the United States. Chronic pain is persistent discomfort or pain that lasts for years, and typically stems from traumatic injuries or damaged nerves. It can start with what appears to be just a minor injury, but persevere and end up lasting years. Even if the underlying source is treated, chronic pain itself may still persist. If you are one of the millions of people in the U.S. currently living with chronic pain, you may have turned to medical marijuana for relief.

Cannabis, otherwise known as marijuana, is widely used among those with chronic pain for assistance with discomfort. Cannabis falls somewhere between a pharmaceutical and alternative type of medicine, as well as sitting in the grey zone when it comes to its legality (or lack of). Assuming the patient lives in a state where medicinal marijuana has been legalized, arguably the most important factor to proceed is obtaining cannabis from a safe, legally approved location.

First, a patient must obtain a recommendation from a physician. It’s worth noting that a physician may only authorize recommendationsfor marijuana, not prescriptions like they would for typical pharmaceutical medicine. This is because while marijuana may be legal in some states, it is still illegal at the federal level. Therefore, patients receive recommendations instead. State-approved, legal marijuana dispensaries or stores have a wide range of cannabis products, some of which are especially known to help with chronic pain.

The three types of marijuana plants include cannabis indica, cannabis sativa, and hybrids. As the name implies, hybrids are a combination of the two strains. Because there is limited research done on the impact of specific marijuana strains for chronic pain, recommendations based on specific strains have not been medically proven. However, according to a survey highlighted in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine published in 2014, participants preferred indica strains for pain management, relaxation, and sleep. In contrast, sativa strains would be used for energy boosts and mood improvements. Participants also reported that the indica strain of cannabis relieved non-migraine headaches, neuropathy, spasticity, and joint pain.

Numerous studies have examined either parts of or the entire marijuana plant in recent years. What is it exactly about cannabis that relieves patients with chronic pain? Studies that have only investigated specific parts of the plant, such as cannabidiol oil (otherwise known as CBD oil), only examine the effects of that specific ingredient. Other studies that look at the marijuana plant has a whole have to consider several moving parts. When the whole plant is used to have more of an effect, it is known as an “entourage effect.”

While smoking marijuana is the most common way to consume cannabis for chronic pain relief, there are alternatives for patients who would rather not smoke it. Different variants of marijuana include oils, edibles, topicals, and sublingual cannabis, which is putting a tablet under the tongue to help with quicker absorption.