By: 17 February 2020
New Zealand study of cannabis use in people with spinal cord injuries

Using cannabis helps people with spinal cord injuries better tolerate almost constant and excruciating pain and participate in community and family life without feeling like ‘zombies’, a new study has found.

Participants in the joint University of Otago, Christchurch and Burwood Academy of Independent Living study found, on balance, the benefits of using cannabis outweighed the negatives. Negatives included risk of prosecution, an irregularity of supply and inconsistent quality and ingredients, due to the drug’s illegal status.

In the words of one participant, “I’m not wanting to get stoned all day, every day, because that’s not me, but I get to live every day. That’s the big difference.

The study is an invaluable insight into the use of the illegal substance as a ‘last resort’ to ease almost constant pain, and highlights the vulnerability of patients in an unregulated market and an absence of professional advice on dosage or effect.

To understand cannabis use and its perceived impact on pain, researchers did in-depth interviews with eight people with spinal injuries who used cannabis for pain. They all chose to use cannabis after finding other pain management strategies, particularly prescription medicines, ineffective.

The study was done on condition of anonymity but the research paper, published recently in the Spinal Cord Case Studies journal, contains quotes from unidentified participants, many of which are included in this media release.

Dr Jo Nunnerley is a University of Otago, Christchurch research fellow and director of the Burwood Academy of Independent Living. She says one of the most common and debilitating complications of spinal cord injury is severe and chronic pain.

The research provides the first detailed understanding of how New Zealanders in often constant pain from spinal cord injuries use cannabis and perceive its effects.

“The research team felt it was important for these people’s voices to be heard and for this small but important study to provide evidence on the way the illegal substance is used to reduce chronic pain in this population.”

The study found cannabis was used to reduce pain often as a ‘last resort’ when other pain management strategies were ineffective or the negative side-effects of prescribed medications, such as drowsiness, fatigue, or being in a ‘zombie state’, became intolerable, Dr Nunnerley says.

Participants reported cannabis reduced their pain quickly and allowed them to engage in daily activities without the side effects of traditional pain medication, she says.

Participants all agreed there were drawbacks to using cannabis. Because they accessed it on the black market, participants had to ‘guess’ at best dosages and risked the substance interacting negatively with prescription medications. Their supply was also irregular and inconsistent in quality, and they risked prosecution in obtaining it.

Source: University of Otago