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Marijuana Aids Nerve Pain Relief

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Marijuana Aids Nerve Pain Relief

By Nancy A. Melville HealthSCOUT Reporter

SUNDAY, Aug. 20 (HealthSCOUT) -- Where morphine fails, marijuana may
work.

That's the major finding of British research into the pain caused by
nerve injuries, a pain known to be somewhat resistant to morphine and
similar drugs that are the gold standard for treating just about any
other kind of serious pain.

The researchers say they now have evidence that active components of
cannabis, which is better known as marijuana, may offer hope.

"It's known that if you injure a nerve, the morphine receptors in the
spinal cord disappear and that's probably why morphine isn't a very
effective pain killer for such conditions as shingles, people who have
had an amputation or perhaps if cancer has invaded the spinal cord,"
says Dr. Andrew Rice, a senior lecturer in pain research at London's
Imperial College.

"But what we've shown is that the cannabinoid receptors do not
disappear when you injure a nerve. So this could offer a therapeutic
advantage over morphine for treating such pain, " he adds.

Cannabinoids are components of cannabis or compounds that mimic
cannabis, and discovering the complexities behind how and why they can
offer pain relief has been the focus of various areas of research.

Rice says the significance of his team's research is that they mapped
the cannabinoid receptors in the spinal cord and showed that they are
found specifically in areas concerned with pain processing.

"Other researchers showed that if you inject cannabinoid compounds in
small doses in the spinal cord, you get pain relief. And we showed how
that effect is mediated," he explains. "In addition, a third group of
people showed that nerve cells in the spinal cord that are normally
activated by pain are damped down by small doses of cannabinoid in the
spinal cord fluid."

The findings were published in a recent issue of the journal Molecular
and Cellular Neuroscience.

Rice says the task now is to find out how to administer the
cannabinoids, but he cautions that the most familiar -- smoking it --
is the last thing researchers would advise.

"Smoking is obviously a big health hazard and we're certainly not
going to advocate that people smoke cannabis. So right now we're
looking at ways of delivering the drug to the body," he says.

"One problem with cannabinoids is that they are very fat-soluble, so
that makes them very difficult to formulate the drugs into pills or
injections. So one way that's being looked at by some pharmaceutical
companies is using the kind of inhaler that asthma sufferers use."

"It's going to be a tough cookie to crack, however," he adds.

Cannabinoid compounds are among a variety of drugs that have been
intensely looked at as researchers look for alternatives to the
remarkably few pain relief options.

"Researchers have spent the last 30 years trying to understand the
mechanism of pain, particularly in the skin and spinal cord, and the
massively complex array of chemicals that are involved in that
process," Rice explains.

"While people have generally tried to target each of those chemicals
to develop pain killers, very few approaches have been successful, and
we're still essentially left with the three very old, basic concepts
in drugs: morphine, which has been with us for thousands of years,
aspirin or acetaminophen," he adds.

Kenneth Mackie, an associate professor in anesthesiology and
physiology at the University of Washington in Seattle, says there is
indeed great concern in the medical community about the need to find
better pain relief for damaged nerves, but that progress is being
made.

"It's obviously a big problem for the people who have that kind of
pain and on the basic science side, it's an area of intense
investigation. Cannabinoids are just one option that people are
looking at."

"Our understanding of the wiring of the spinal cord is evolving very
quickly, however, and we should soon be able to choose drugs to work
more effectively," he adds.

What To Do

You can read more about research on cannabinoid components with
multiple sclerosis patients in this HealthSCOUT story.

And here's a 1997 report by a panel of National Institutes of Health
experts on the need for more research to further explore marijuana's
effects.