Is Marijuana an Effective Treatment for Rheumatic Diseases?

Does Research Match the Opinions of Doctors and Patients?

Woman and senior woman holding hands

Even before medical marijuana became legalized in certain states, its effectiveness for rheumatic diseases was debated. Now that medical marijuana is legal in some places, the discussion is occurring openly.

What we had up until now were anecdotal stories from patients who have successfully used marijuana to control pain and other symptoms and a herd of others who wished they had the opportunity to try it and the guts to discuss it with their doctor. Researchers are beginning to weigh in, too.

An Analysis of Available Studies

In a report published in Arthritis Care & Research, little evidence was found to support the use of cannabinoids in rheumatic diseases. More to the point, not one controlled study has considered the use of herbal cannabis in a population of patients with rheumatic disease. Researchers searched the database of medical literature, going back decades to the 1940s. They were only able to find four small studies of short duration which included a total of 201 patients. The four studies were published in 2006, 2008, 2010, and 2012.

One of the four studies was halted early because the cannabinoid did not differ from placebo in a group of osteoarthritis patients. The other three studies had a high risk of bias, reported mild to modest effectiveness for pain relief and to promote sleep, and had a high rate of side effects. Based on these findings, researchers concluded that "these studies provide limited information, and we cannot draw any conclusions regarding efficacy or side effects—especially long-term side effects—associated with cannabinoid therapy." Based on current scientific study and evidence, rheumatologists cannot recommend the use of cannabinoids, particularly medical marijuana, as a treatment option for patients with rheumatic diseases.

Researchers also pointed out that animal and laboratory studies have revealed a possible beneficial effect of cannabinoids for pain and inflammation, but human studies are needed before the treatment could be recommended or endorsed for rheumatic diseases. As it stands, there is insufficient evidence.

Doctor and Patient Perspectives

While it is indisputable that there is insufficient evidence from scientific studies to support marijuana as a treatment option for rheumatic diseases, what do doctors and patients think? We asked Scott J. Zashin, MD, a rheumatologist from Texas, his opinion. Dr. Zashin said, "Some rheumatic disease patients are reporting beneficial effects from marijuana use. I think we need to keep an open mind on the potential benefits in selected patients."

A Colorado resident who has rheumatoid arthritis commented, "I have personal experience and found it not to be helpful." Another rheumatoid arthritis patient from the New England area commented, "For me, it works far better than any muscle relaxer. It got my neck free after 6 weeks of it being frozen. I probably use it once or twice a year for spasms." A patient from the Minnesota area said, "It's just being legalized in Minnesota for chronic pain. I have no experience but I'm all for it if it works and think it should be an option."

Perhaps that's what we will have until more human studies of good quality are completed—doctors willing to have an open mind and patients who are willing, if not eager, to try cannabinoids just as they would any treatment option. And, there will be those who wait for more evidence, especially regarding side effects.

More Information

"Eight Things Rheumatologists Should Know About Medical Marijuana" from the Rheumatology Network, provides more background information about medical marijuana and suggests how it should be handled for rheumatic diseases in light of insufficient evidence. It might take time before clear evidence is associated with this subject.

Was this page helpful?

Article Sources

Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial policy to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  • Fitzcharles MA, Ste-marie PA, Häuser W, et al. Efficacy, Tolerability, and Safety of Cannabinoid Treatments in the Rheumatic Diseases: A Systematic Review of Randomized Controlled Trials. Arthritis Care Res (Hoboken). 2016;68(5):681-8.