A tall plant with a stiff upright stem, divided serrated leaves, and glandular hairs, refers to or describes cannabis. It is used to produce hemp fiber and as a psychotropic drug. Cannabis can be used by smoking, within food, vaporizing, or as an extract. It is mostly used recreationally or as a medicinal drug, however, it may also be used for spiritual purposes. According to researcher, health claims are more hype than evidence as reflected by Sheryl Ubelacker, The Canadian Press:
“Google the word “cannabis” coupled with just about any disease — arthritis, epilepsy, even cancer — and there are all sorts of health claims made about what some have come to view as a potential wonder drug.
But fervour over what cannabis might do has run wildly ahead of what scientific studies have proven it can do, experts say.
“I think right now there's a lot more hype than evidence and there's a lot more enthusiasm for its widespread application than there are good trials to support such expansive use,” says Jason Busse, co-director of the Centre for Medicinal Cannabis Research at McMaster University in Hamilton.
“Some of the things that I've heard that are a little bit more worrisome are on websites from companies producing these products, making claims for almost anything and everything,” Busse says.
“There's a lot of hyperbole out there right now and I think there's a real risk that patients, who are desperate because of the limited options they have for their condition, are embracing very enthusiastically some of these claims.”
Image courtesy of: Charlón
So what are the legitimate, science-based benefits of the cannabis plant, whose purported therapeutic properties have been extolled for millennia?
There's strong evidence that certain cannabinoid components in marijuana can help alleviate nausea and vomiting from chemotherapy, reduce muscle spasticity in people with multiple sclerosis, and help people with AIDS-related anorexia regain lost weight.
Those cannabinoids — most notably tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), marijuana's main psychoactive ingredient, and cannabidiol (CBD) — also have been shown to reduce pain in some people. Preliminary evidence suggests cannabis may help replace or reduce the dosage of opioids prescribed for pain control.
Dr. Mark Ware, a professor at Montreal's McGill University who has spent two decades researching pain, says marijuana doesn't appear to do much for acute pain resulting from trauma or surgery.
However, studies have shown cannabis may be effective in easing chronic neuropathic pain — the burning/stabbing discomfort caused by nerve damage — including that experienced by some diabetics.
“There hasn't been a lot of work on chronic inflammatory pain, chronic migraines, fibromyalgia and so on,” says Ware, who recently went on temporary leave from McGill to become chief medical officer at Canopy Growth Corp., an Ontario-based licensed cannabis producer.
“It doesn't mean that they don't work for some of the conditions, it's just simply that we haven't looked yet.”
Hope for arthritis patients?
Arthritis, both rheumatoid and osteo, is one disease where cannabis is creating a lot of buzz, in large part because a growing number of patients swear by it for easing stiff, swollen and painful joints.
“We know there's a lot of anecdotal evidence coming from patients who use medical cannabis to help manage symptoms of their arthritis, but of course we have to put some sort of scientific beef behind that,” said researcher Jason McDougall, a professor of pharmacology and anesthesia at Dalhousie University in Halifax.
Still, pre-clinical trials in animal models of arthritis are sparking hopes that cannabis may prove effective in humans, so much so that the Canadian Arthritis Society is funding research into cannabinoids.
“They have this whole slew of different beneficial properties that we're finding in the lab,” says McDougall, who has an Arthritis Society grant to investigate the effects of injecting cannabinoids directly into arthritic joints using animal models.
“We know they're good for pain relief, they help with fatigue and we're finding that they can help repair the nerves in the joint, which become damaged in arthritis, and that they can be anti-inflammatory as well.”
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