By Dr Janelle Trees, BSC (HONS), MBBS (HONS), FRACGP
Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA) is an autoimmune disease where the immune system attacks healthy body tissues leading to inflamed and swollen joints, which causes long term (chronic) and often severe pain. It affects around 250,000 Australians. RA can have a major impact on a person’s quality of life.
The use of medical cannabis for patients with Rheumatoid Arthritis is currently under discussion in Australia. There are over 80 compounds known as ‘cannabinoids’ that can be extracted from the cannabis plant (Cannabis sativa).
The best known cannabinoid in cannabis is called tetrahydrocannabinol or THC. This cannabinoid is responsible for the psychoactive effect or ‘high’. An alternative cannabinoid called cannabidiol or CBD has been found to have many of the same benefits of THC but without the negative psychoactive effects.
A study in 2005 (1), found clinically significant improvements in pain relief in patients with RA that were given an oral spray containing equal parts of the compounds THC and CBD (1:1 ratio). There were no serious side effects recorded and no treatment related withdrawal symptoms. The main side effects were mild dizziness, dry mouth, nausea and constipation.
This study also showed a reduction in disease activity which is consistent with pre-clinical work demonstrating that cannabinoids have anti-inflammatory properties (2-4). These are potentially important results as this research indicates that if medical cannabis compounds can prevent anti inflammatory action then this treatment could not only provide pain relief but could also slow the irreversible damage caused to the joints by these inflammatory molecules.
It must be noted that there is still a lot of research required to be carried out regarding the use of medicinal cannabis in Australia and the clinical benefits for use in Rheumatoid Arthritis. As cannabis laws change around the world, it will become easier for scientists to investigate cannabis compounds further and come to solid conclusions about its role as a treatment for Rheumatoid Arthritis.
Please always follow your doctor’s advice on the use of your current prescribed medications.