A recent study has found that smoking cannabis does indeed reduce headaches: it makes you 47.3 percent less likely to get a headache and 49.6 percent less likely to get a migraine. A migraine is a headache accompanied by nausea or vomiting; sensitivity to light, sound or smells; or worsening of symptoms due to slight physical exertion.

The study did not find that cannabis caused “overuse headache”, a drawback of conventional treatments. Researchers found that people used more cannabis over time when they get a headache. This is possibly because they had developed a tolerance for the drug. The study appeared online in the Journal of Pain. Carrie Cutler led it. She is an assistant professor of psychology at Washington State University.

Better to take cannabis than this stuff. Photo: Mike Mozart

Better to take cannabis than this stuff. Photo: Mike Mozart

Cuttler remarked that the motivation for her team to undertake this study was because many people have claimed to use cannabis when they get a headache or migraine. She observed, “but surprisingly few studies had addressed the topic.”

This was big data in real time

This was the first study to use what Cuttler called “very big data” and in real time, too. Studies have previously asked people to recall the effect of prior cannabis use. There was one clinical trial that suggested cannabis alleviated headaches better than ibuprofen. This is one of the most poplar over-the-counter painkillers. However, this study used nabilone, a synthetic cannabinoid. Another study discovered that two thirds of cannabis users took other migraine medications less after commencing use of cannabis for medical reasons.

Where the data came from

In this study, researchers analysed data from the Strainprint app. This monitors the responses of people in Canada who have used cannabis purchased for medical reasons. Data came from over 1,300 people who used the app more than 12,200 times and 653 who used it more than 7,400 times.

Headache reduction was reported by 90.0 percent of men and 89.1 percent of wimmen, a difference the researchers bewilderingly described as significant. The reduction was greater when using cannabis concentrates, like cannabis oil, rather than weed.

It might not be THC or CBD that lessens headaches

There was no significant difference in pain reduction with cannabis strains that were higher or lower in levels of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC, which makes you stoned) and cannabidiol (CBD, which has no psychoactive effect), the principal ingredients of cannabis. Since cannabis is comprised of over 100 cannabinoids, this suggests that the benefits of cannabis for headaches were down to other cannabinoids, such as terpenes.

Cuttler admitted that one of the limitations of this study was that it relied on a self-selected group of people who might already believe cannabis would make you less likely to get a headache. She suspected there were “some slight overestimates of effectiveness”. Another limitation is that there was no placebo control group. Cuttler hoped that other researchers might undertake “the difficult work of conducting placebo-controlled trials.” At least, she commented, “it gives patients and their doctors … a little more information about what to expect when using cannabis.” Cuttler added that she had always wondered if cannabis just lessens the emotional distress of pain. “In other words, perhaps cannabis makes people care less about the pain.”

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