When to Use Painkillers or Marijuana

July 15th 2016

Studies show that marijuana can safely and effectively treat different types of pain, which is probably why a lot of people are starting to replace their prescription drugs with the non-addictive substance. But that doesn't mean there's no place for conventional pain medication in today's increasingly pro-pot world.

marijuana-leafStocksy/Heim -

I recently sat down with Dustin Sulak, a licensed osteopathic physician who was one of the first doctors in the state to recommend medical marijuana licenses to patients. Though he felt encouraged by the fact that patients were turning to holistic, nontoxic options such as cannabis to treat their pain, he also explained that prescription painkillers are effective under certain circumstances. They're even more effective when used in combination with marijuana, Sulak said.

"It’s really well known that conventional painkillers — the opioids — work very well for acute pain, for post-surgical pain, and for end-of-life pain," Sulak told ATTN:. "We know that they do a great job of taking that temporary, acute pain and relieving it. But we don’t have any evidence that they’re a good treatment for long-term, chronic pain."

In fact, Sulak said, long-term use of prescription painkillers for chronic pain has proven to be ineffective. The pills don't treat chronic pain or improve functioning, a 2015 study in the Annals of Internal Medicine found. "The evidence just isn’t there — and this is basically the standard of care that’s being used to treat chronic pain in this country," he said.

If you live in one of the 25 states where marijuana is legal in America and suffer from chronic pain, there's hope. Numerous studies have found that cannabis treats chronic pain by reducing inflammation, relaxing muscles, and facilitating sleep, which is a key component of pain management. Cannabis might not totally eliminate the pain like some potent painkillers, but that's actually beneficial to the patient, because if they go about their daily life numbed to their pain, they may incur further injury.

doctor's officeMorganka via Bigstock

Sulak added:

"Over and over again, patients come to me and say, 'Doc, [cannabis] made the pain less intense, but even more than that, it made the pain less important. I can get on with my life now. I know what I’m supposed to do and what I’m not supposed to do, but in the meanwhile, I can laugh, I can play with my kids, I can focus on my work, and the pain is not getting in my way."

Something that most people don't understand, Sulak said, is that cannabis can be effectively used in conjunction with prescription painkillers.

Within the first couple weeks of combining cannabis and painkillers, most of Sulak's patients are able to reduce the number of painkillers they take by 50 percent. That's because components of cannabis make the painkillers feel stronger, but they don't put patients at increased risk of opioid overdose. Studies also show that marijuana prevents people from building a tolerance to opioids.

"But then the cannabis is treating the problem for which they started using opioids in the first place, and it’s not just reducing pain," Sulak told ATTN:. And that seems to be why more patients are tossing their pills for pot.

RELATED: Here's What Marijuana Does to Pain

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