Cannabis and Alternative Therapies for Pain: A Quick Reference

Updated: Jul 26

Did you know that chronic pain affects more than 3.4 million Australians? And for more than half of those people, living with pain disrupts their daily lives and restricts what they can do. As a result, 45 percent of Australians with chronic pain also experience anxiety or depression.


Chronic pain can be challenging, and there isn’t a simple cure. But it can be treated. Medicines and alternative therapies, such as physical therapy, CBT, and medicinal marijuanas are used in Australia to reduce chronic pain and help people live healthy lives.


What Is Chronic Pain?

Chronic pain is defined as pain that lasts for more than three months. That’s longer than pain from an injury or illness should take to heal. With chronic pain, the pain persists after your body has healed. This is because the nerve signals that alert us to pain keep firing even though the cause of the pain is gone.


Everyone experiences chronic pain differently: it could be a sharp, stabbing pain or a dull, continuous ache. The pain will depend on the original cause and other factors in a person’s life and health.


Unsurprisingly, chronic pain can have a significant impact on physical and mental health. People experiencing chronic pain often struggle to maintain regular activities like going to work, exercising, and socialising. As a result, their mental health can decline, potentially worsening the pain. There is evidence that depression can exacerbate pain.


Symptoms of Chronic Pain

The symptoms of chronic pain are very varied and will depend on what initially caused the pain. You can experience chronic pain in nearly every part of your body. Symptoms can include:

  • Headaches

  • Dull aches

  • Tingling or “pins and needles”

  • Stabbing or shooting pain

  • Nerve pain

  • Stiffness

Some people experience pain constantly, while for others it varies over time. They may also have other symptoms, such as feeling very tired, fatigued, or weak. Many people with chronic pain struggle to sleep and/or lose their appetite.


Another common effect of some forms of chronic pain is losing strength, flexibility, and mobility, making it more difficult to carry out daily tasks and exercise. Older people, women, and people who are overweight have a higher risk of developing chronic pain.


Causes of Chronic Pain

Most people start to experience chronic pain after an injury or an illness. For example, back injuries are a common cause of chronic pain. Surgery is another—many people experience post-surgery pain long after healing. Illnesses like cancer and arthritis are other frequent causes of chronic pain.


Researchers think that chronic pain is often caused by nerve damage. If nerves are damaged by an injury or illness, they can start to send pain signals even when there’s no other physical symptoms.


But for some people, chronic pain starts without an acute injury or illness. Underlying health conditions that can cause chronic pain include fibromyalgia, endometriosis, chronic fatigue syndrome, and inflammatory bowel disease.


There’s still a lot we don’t understand about chronic pain, especially when it isn’t caused by a specific injury or illness. There are complex interactions between physical and emotional pain. This means that every person experiences chronic pain differently, and our life experiences, mental health, and outlook can influence how much pain we feel.


Treatments for Chronic Pain

While, unfortunately, there is no cure for chronic pain, many treatments can provide relief and help you go about your daily life.


For severe chronic pain, pharmaceuticals such as opioids, anti-inflammatories (like Ibuprofen) or anaesthetics can be subscribed. However, over long periods, pain medicines can cause side effects. So it’s best to speak with a doctor about whether pain medicines are the right option for you.


Therefore, it’s often recommended to use a range of alternative therapies and lifestyle changes to treat chronic pain. Work with your doctor to find which therapies are effective for you and how to combine them to get the best results.


Common alternative therapies for chronic pain include:

  • Physical therapy

  • Massage

  • Acupuncture

  • Yoga and meditation

  • Psychotherapy, such as cognitive behavioural therapy

  • Staying active at an appropriate level

  • Learning to identify and avoid pain triggers

  • Medical cannabis

Cannabis for Chronic Pain

Cannabis and cannabis-derived medicines are becoming more commonly used to treat chronic pain. As medicinal marijuanas in Australia and beyond has become more widely accepted, there is increasing scientific research into its effectiveness.


A 2015 systematic review looked at the results from 79 trials of medicinal cannabis and cannabinoid drugs. They concluded that “there was moderate-quality evidence to support the use of cannabinoids for the treatment of chronic pain.”


Here in Australia, applications to use medicinal marijuana for cancer pain and nerve pain have frequently been approved by the Therapeutic Goods Association.


Find Relief from Chronic Pain

Chronic pain is a difficult condition facing millions of Australians every year. However, despite the challenges it can pose, there is hope. By combining treatments such as physical therapy, psychotherapy, medicinal marijuana, and exercise, many people find relief from chronic pain, regain day-to-day function, and improve their mental health.