Everything you need to know about cannabis and migraines

Those who suffer from migraines know they’re the absolute worst. Way different from your typical headache, migraines come with a whole wretched arsenal of symptoms. Nausea. Vomiting. Sensitivity to noise and light – extreme sensitivity in many cases. They can last a few hours or they can literally lay sufferers up for three to four days. For some, they come with vision complications. If you’re unfortunate enough to be forced to work with a migraine, they can make you irritable, distant and distracted from your tasks. Too often, they carry with them mental health afflictions like depression, anxiety and hyperactivity. Migraines disrupt lives, careers and families.

The worst part: Doctors don’t really know what causes them. There’s a good chance they run in families – to the extent that some migraine triggers can actually be passed down. Indeed, one of the best migraine treatments we have available to us right now is for patients to recognize and then avoid their triggers. Things like stress, changes in caffeine consumption, skipping meals or eating certain foods can lay sufferers up for days. Many doctors prefer to avoid prescribing migraine drugs since some of those can have adverse side effects. 

Some can make you drowsy to the point of uselessness; others must be avoided by anyone with a heart problem. And the less said about opioids, the better. It’s not that these solutions are ineffective – although for some patients, they work inconsistently. The bigger problem is that for many, it can take such a long time to determine what kind of treatment works best for their particular situation. That means weeks of trying a given medication, scheduling a follow-up with the doctor, then trying something else, then repeating the process. The process of finding the right medication for migraines can itself be headache-inducing. But there’s another solution – if you live in a state where it’s available to you.

Cannabis for Migraine Relief & Treatment

Cannabis can ease all kinds of pain. There’s still a lot of studying, surveys and controlled experimentation left to be done, but all kinds of people use cannabis to treat all kinds of pain. See, inside your brain is an entire network of cannabinoid receptors – it’s called the endocannabinoid system, or ECS. The chemicals in cannabis interact with the ECS in ways that can reduce anxiety, nausea, muscle spasms, and pain. CBD is the major player here; THC can help distract you from pain but doesn’t do much on its own to eliminate it. By interacting with neurotransmitter receptors and neurons, CBD can essentially trick your body into believing it doesn’t feel as much pain. And it does it without a lot of frustrating side effects. Typically, the worst side effect of CBD – mild drowsiness – can be countered with a strong cup of coffee.

That’s why so many states have legalized CBD and so many others are making cannabis legal for medical and recreational use. And it’s why in many cases, doctors don’t need to prescribe CBD; it’s just something patients can try on their own. And try it they do – almost a quarter of Americans admit to using cannabis products regularly. They use it to relieve pain from arthritis, fibromyalgia, glaucoma, chronic pain and more. They use it to help them get on with their lives.

For migraine usage – as with many other types of applications – much of the evidence is still, unfortunately, anecdotal rather than scientific. But anecdotal ain’t nothin’ – many, many pot users became pot users because they suffered from headaches or other kinds of pain. Marijuana, despite what regressive politicians tell you, isn’t a gateway drug – but migraines are a gateway symptom, its symptoms leading many to discover the wonderful world of cannabis. 

A study performed by University of Colorado medical scientists in 2016 yielded extraordinarily encouraging results. Researches studied 121 migraine patients at Gedde Whole Health, a medical marijuana clinic about a hundred miles southwest of Denver. Of those 121, a whopping 103 reported a decrease in the number of migraines they suffered per month. The frequency of migraines those patients experienced dropped from an average of ten a month to less than five a month. 

“We were not expecting the decrease in frequency in migraine that we saw. It was pretty dramatic,” Dr. Sarah Anderson, the University of Colorado pharmacist who directed the study, told the Denver Post.

A 2019 Washington State University study saw similarly encouraging results, studying both migraine sufferers and more common headache sufferers who treated their pain with inhaled cannabis, either by smoke or vape. Headache sufferers reported a 47.3 percent drop in symptoms, and migraine users reported their pain was effectively halved by cannabis use. 

It was the first study to gather data from headache and migraine patients using cannabis in real time – meaning researchers tracked patient information as it happened rather than by interview patients about past cannabis use. The study did not track use of edibles or sublinguals, but the overall results were fantastic news for migraine sufferers living in states with legal medical marijuana. 

Interestingly enough, WSU researchers didn’t find a significant connection between strain and effect – meaning they weren’t able to find a pattern in the amount of THC or CBD in a given strain in relation to how that strain reduced pain. That doesn’t mean such a connection doesn’t exist, but more research will have to be done on the topic. They also found no evidence of “overuse headaches,” which can happen with other medications; essentially, use of traditional migraine medicine itself eventually causes a separate type of headache.

“So,” you might be thinking now. “I’m convinced cannabis could be the solution to my migraine problem. What do I do now?”

Good question. First, you’ve got to live in a state where cannabis is legal. The sad but true reality is that pot is still considered totally illegal in eight states, and by the US government. Fortunately, most other states have, at the very least, decriminalized for medical use, and you can talk to your doctor about using it as a migraine solution. 

Second, you’ll need to know how much to dose, and this isn’t something an article on the internet can really tell you accurately. You might try using it prophylactically – in other words, use it every day to prevent migraines from occurring in the first place. Or you can use it as soon as you feel the oncoming symptoms, or after you experience a migraine trigger. 

The last thing you’ll need to consider is medium – will you smoke weed? Take edibles or sublingual drops? Vapes? There’s no shortage of options. The WSU report above studied patients who inhale their cannabis, either by smoking or vaping. So that may be a good place to start. But smoking and vaping aren’t good for people with asthma, COPD or other lung problems – in which case you may want to try edibles. Again, this is something you should talk to your doctor about, or your budtender. 

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