Can Medical Cannabis Treat Migraines? 3 Things You Should Know

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Migraines have been a painful plague on humans for thousands of years. In fact, the first known written reference to migraines is contained in a document from ancient Egypt known as The Ebers Papyrus dating back to 1550 B.C. Interestingly, it is around this same time period that cannabis as medicine begins to be utilized during the Vedic period in India and Nepal. The western use of medical cannabis wasn’t introduced until 1839, however, when Irish physician William Brooke O’Shaughnessy brought back his knowledge of the plant’s healing properties from India. It took another 75 years before Sir William Osler, the acknowledged father of modern medicine, published that cannabis was a “most satisfactory remedy” for migraines. To date, research into medical cannabis is showing that cannabis (also known as marijuana) continues to be effective in the treatment of migraines and even performs better than prescription medications with fewer side effects. Let’s take a closer look at migraines, their conventional treatments, and how medical cannabis can help.

What a migraine is and its symptoms.  For the estimated 28 million Americans who suffer with them, migraine headaches can be severe and debilitating with pain and other unpleasant side effects lasting hours and even days. Though severe headaches are often referred to as migraines, evidence suggests that migraines result from physiological changes in the brain and can be triggered by internal and external variables such as chemical and environmental changes. The general consensus among medical professionals is that migraines occur when these triggers interact with a dysfunctional brain stem which is not properly regulating pain responses. When triggered, the trigeminovascular system is activated, which leads to dilation of cerebral blood vessels that then activate the circuits in the brain associated with inflammation and pain response. 

The symptoms associated with migraines are complex and patients can experience different types of migraines. There are two main types of migraines and knowing the difference between the two can be beneficial for treatment and prevention. These two main types of migraines are Migraine with Aura and Migraine without Aura. Migraine without Aura is the most common and is generally a sensation of moderate to severe headache on one side that feels like it is pulsating. These are often accompanied with sensitivity to light or smells, blurred vision, nausea, mood changes, and fatigue. Migraine without Aura last from a few hours to up to a few days. The second main type, Migraine with Aura, is the classic type of migraine which usually is preceded by visual disturbances or other neurological symptoms before the headache begins. Some of the visual disturbances are wavy lines, blind spots, and flashing lights which can last for as little as 10 minutes to an hour or more. In addition to painful headaches and visual disturbances, migraine symptoms often also include sensitivity to light and sound as well as disorientation and problems with coordination.

Conventional treatments for migraines. Migraines are generally treated either with acute medications that treat a sudden attack or prophylactic medicines that aim to prevent. The most commonly prescribed medications for acute migraines are analgesic pain relievers such as opiates, acetaminophen, steroids, and ergot alkaloids. The medications prescribed to prevent migraines are generally cardiovascular drugs such as beta and calcium channel blockers. Antidepressants, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory (NSAIDs), and anticonvulsant medications are also prescribed though these are not lacking their own negative side effects. Unfortunately, the medications generally prescribed to treat and help prevent migraines do include side effects such as fatigue, depression, weight gain, nausea, diarrhea, decreased libido, hair loss, dry mouth, difficulty concentrating, and addiction.

How medical cannabis helps. One of the best known properties of medical cannabis is its effectiveness in pain relief. The chemicals THC and CBD in particular are known to have analgesic properties which studies have shown to be more effective in treating pain than opiates. In addition to analgesic properties, medical cannabis can also help to manage the symptoms of migraines due to the anti-emetic (prevents nausea and vomiting) and anti-inflammatory properties found in the cannabinoids THC and CBD.

Cannabis researchers have recently discovered that when a patient uses medical cannabis, the chemicals known as cannabinoids enter the body searching for the receptor sites in the endocannabinoid system. This process helps to regulate the body’s endocannabinoid system, which plays an important role in maintaining balance and general homeostasis- including immune system responses which can trigger migraines. Additionally, the cannabinoids THC and CBD are known to help patients stimulate their appetite, obtain restorative sleep, and manage their depression and anxiety without the negative side effects associated with pharmaceutical medications.

When considering using medical cannabis for treating migraines, there are a number of factors to consider. As no two patients experience migraines with the same exact symptoms, the medical cannabis treatment plan for each patient will also be unique. With a variety of ways to use medical cannabis such as edibles, tinctures, concentrated oils, and vaporizers, it can be difficult and overwhelming for patients to navigate the options available to them. Factors such as dosage, strain, and method of ingestion need to be considered as well as each patient’s unique medical history when considering a treatment plan. It is therefore advised that each patient consult with both their doctor and a reputable medical cannabis practitioner to ensure they receive the best medical advice.

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