Combining Opiates and Marijuana for Pain Control: A Risky Choice

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Chronic pain is a tremendous problem experienced by at least 116 million Americans. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, more people struggle with chronic pain than heart disease, diabetes, and cancer combined.

To date, scientists haven’t found a truly effective, non-addictive way to relieve the pain caused by some acute injuries and chronic conditions. Although opioid misuse and fatal overdoses continue to be at epidemic proportions across the nation, opioid painkillers are widely used and routinely prescribed by physicians – because they work.

Some researchers identify cannabis has been recognized as a possible alternative, especially since the trend toward the legalization of medical marijuana in many states. Many people who use prescription opioids think – and hope –  that using marijuana, along with painkillers, will provide an extra level of pain control.

However, these hopes are nor supported by the most recent research. In fact, a study performed at the University of Houston indicates it may be counterproductive. Results show that mixing marijuana with opioid medications doesn’t do much for pain, but can trigger depression, anxiety, and problems with substance abuse and addiction.

Mixing Cannabis and Opioids for Pain Control: What Research Says

Research by the University of Houston Department of Psychology followed more than 400 opioid users who experienced mild to moderate pain for at least three months.

The study indicated that participants who used cannabis and opioids experienced no more relief than those who used only opioids. However, they reported more anxiety and depression than those who used opioids alone.

People who used both marijuana and prescription painkillers were also more likely to use other substances, including tobacco, alcohol, tranquilizers, and cocaine.

Another study conducted by researchers at Harvard Medical School and Cedar-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles supported these findings. An analysis of over 500 patients with musculoskeletal injury found that marijuana use during recovery from injury was associated with an increase in total prescribed opioids and increased duration of use.

The Dangers of Mixing Cannabis and Opioid Painkillers

Cannabis and opioid drugs both have depressant effects. Using marijuana along with opioid painkillers is a dangerous practice because each substance intensifies the effect of the other. The combination can lower blood pressure, slow brain function, and trigger extreme fatigue. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issues strong warnings against combining any two drugs that depress the Central Nervous System (CNS). In some cases, severe breathing problems, coma, and death can occur. Other issues that may result from combining painkillers and marijuana include blurred vision, chills, fatigue, hallucinations, and confusion.

A Note About Polydrug Abuse: Treatment Works

Polydrug abuse, polysubstance abuse, and polysubstance use disorder are terms used to define the use or abuse of two more drugs at the same time. Not surprisingly, using more than one substance is nearly always riskier than using a single substance.

Often, people don’t realize that using marijuana and prescription painkillers, or enjoying a glass of wine after taking prescription medicine, are forms of polydrug abuse.

Taking two prescriptions can also be a form of polydrug abuse, even when both drugs are prescribed by a physician, including those containing ibuprofen or acetaminophen. Using prescription drugs with over-the-counter medications can also be dangerous.

Polydrug abuse, including the combination of marijuana and opiates, can exacerbate mental health issues. In turn, mental health issues can worsen drug abuse.

Addiction treatment can be highly effective, especially when it addresses both substance abuse and mental health issues.

Treatment for polydrug abuse is typically more in-depth than treatment for the abuse of a single substance. After a full evaluation, many addiction professionals recommend residential, partial hospitalization, or intensive outpatient treatment as the most effective approach for people who abuse more than one substance.