CANNABIS FOR MIGRAINES | Can medical marijuana help headaches?

Josh Dickey
Aug 14, 2018

Migraines may always remain a mystery.

Even the Mayo Clinic itself states it plainly: “Migraine causes aren’t understood.” But despite this blunt and bleak assessment, there is hope that relief is out there.

What little we know about this painful, debilitating affliction is that it occurs somewhere in the brain stem and nervous system, and interacts with the largest cranial nerve–the trigeminal (highlighted in yellow, below)–which controls facial sensation, motor function and, most importantly, pain signaling.

[SEE ALSO: CANNABIS FOR PAIN | How science backs the plant’s painkiller reputation]

Migraines may also be the byproduct of imbalanced brain chemicals like serotonin, according to the Mayo.

The trigeminal nerve.

These are some of the same body-balancing mechanisms and pain signal routes that cannabis compounds have been shown to disrupt via the endocannabinoid system, a network of receptors throughout our bodies that are triggered when they encounter cannabinoids like THC or CBD.

Add to that the abundant anecdotal and deeply ancient use of cannabis as a headache treatment (it’s mentioned in Assyrian manuscripts from the second millennium B.C., preparations from Ancient Greece and the earliest of Arabic pharmacology texts) and there’s compelling cause to see the connection here.

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But modern medicine has been checked out for a while.

Federal prohibition has prevented clinical trials–a gap that stretches back to the late 19th century–but a review of patient records published in 2016 by the University of Colorado set out to find whether regular cannabis consumption had any effect on migraine sufferers.

Even the study’s authors pointed to the scantness of controlled research in their opening statement:

“No clinical trials are currently available that demonstrate the effects of marijuana on patients with migraine headache; however, the potential effects of cannabinoids on serotonin in the central nervous system indicate that marijuana may be a therapeutic alternative.”

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Their findings were pretty promising.

The Colorado researchers reviewed the medical charts of 121 people who had been diagnosed as regular migraine sufferers, and who were instructed by their doctors to try medical marijuana as a preventative step. Patients used cannabis in various forms daily to prevent or ameliorate attacks from 2010 to 2014; many used more than one form, though inhaling seemed to be both the most popular and effective method.

Here’s what the researchers discovered:

  • On average, “migraine headache frequency decreased from 10.4 to 4.6 headaches per month … with the use of medical marijuana.”
  • They also said nearly 40% of patients reported “positive effects,” including cutting their migraine frequency and alleviating the pain and discomfort of an ongoing attack.
  • Fourteen patients, about 12% of the total, reported successfully using cannabis to stop an oncoming migraine in its tracks.
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As is often the case with cannabis therapy, it didn’t work for everyone.

Cannabis is superior at knocking out nausea and vomiting, is well-demonstrated to help with all sorts of chronic pain and discomfort, and shows proficiency in alleviating insomnia. It’s also been shown to have varying degrees of effects on anxiety and PTSD.

And anyone who’s suffered through even one bad migraine knows that each of these indications is, in some way, connected to the experience. Whether cannabis compounds are disrupting the dark forces that bring migraines to bear in the first place, or are just good at alleviating their harrowing symptoms, no one yet knows.

It’s time to study cannabis’ efficacy for headaches.

Even the Colorado researchers, who concluded without equivocation that migraine frequency “was decreased with medical marijuana use,” allow that more study should be conducted “to explore a cause-and-effect relationship and the use of different strains, formulations, and doses of marijuana to better understand the effects of medical marijuana on migraine headache treatment and [prevention].”

For now we’re left with what we do know, and a little bit of self-experimentation.

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And that’s where you come in.

Whether you’re an experienced cannabis user or are a newbie exploring it as a potential remedy, consult with your doctor before introducing medical marijuana into your wellness routine. From there, it’s always a good idea to start slow, with just enough of a dose to achieve desired effects.

Bear in mind that the Colorado results included 14 patients who reported “negative” effects, mostly unwanted drowsiness, and mostly from edibles, which don’t seem to be as effective in migraine relief. Remember: Most bad experiences with cannabis can be traced to taking too much, so know your limits and stay within them; a few mellow puffs of flower, or two to three draws off an oil vaporizer, should go a long way toward telling you whether it’s helping or not.

Of course, consuming cannabis with THC means feeling high, and for some people, that’s unpleasant no matter what kind of headache you’re experiencing. But there are ways of experimenting with cannabis remedies without feeling high at all.

In that case, CBD is a good place to start.

The plant’s second-most common cannabinoid, which has no psychoactive effects, has shown its own promise for certain kinds of pain relief. While no studies or clinical trials specific to CBD and migraines have been conducted, it has been studied as therapy for a wide array of indications, from epilepsy and neuropathic pain to addiction withdrawal symptoms.

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Early indications are that CBD holds great promise for all kinds of pain indications, and the good news is that you can’t overdo it. Choosing a trusted brand of CBD oil, tincture or vaporizer to try out on a bad migraine, or as a daily preventative routine, has no demonstrated downside, as far as side-effects go, and could be the key that unlocks buzz-free relief to your migraine problem.

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