Exact projections remain unknown, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report that between 70,000 to 100,000 Americans have sickle cell disease. The disease causes a deficit in red blood cells and blocks blood flow throughout the body. This can result in chronic pain with patients typically prescribed opioids, despite potential side effect like addiction, constipation, and respiratory depression.

But a new study published in JAMA Network Open finds that cannabis could provide an alternative or adjunctive treatment to sickle cell patients. The research, co-led by UC Irvine researcher Kalpna Gupta and UC San Francisco’s Dr. Donald Abrams, represents the first double-blind, placebo-controlled, randomized clinical trial to explore marijuana as a potential pain relief for sickle cell.

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“These trial results show that vaporized cannabis appears to be generally safe,” Gupta said. “They also suggest that sickle cell patients may be able to mitigate their pain with cannabis—and that cannabis might help society address the public health crisis related to opioids.”

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The trial recruited 23 participants with sickle cell-disease-related pain. They either inhaled a cannabis vaporizer with equal parts THC and CBD or a placebo over two five-day inpatient sessions. Researchers then recorded how pain still affected the general activities, sleep patterns, walking, and general mood of participants.

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Those who inhaled cannabis reported general improvements in pain, with the effectiveness of the plant increasing over time. Subjects reported less and less pain interference in walking and sleeping and their moods also improved. However, Gupta noted the difference between the cannabis group and placebo group when it came to measuring pain were not statistically significant. But from the results she saw, Gupta still pushed for more research.

“Pain causes many people to turn to cannabis and is, in fact, the top reason that people cite for seeking cannabis from dispensaries,” said Gupta. “We don’t know if all forms of cannabis products will have a similar effect on chronic pain. Vaporized cannabis, which we employed, may be safer than other forms because lower amounts reach the body’s circulation. This trial opens the door for testing different forms of medical cannabis to treat chronic pain.”

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