Can Cannabis Help Rheumatoid Arthritis Symptoms?

January 19, 2023
Skeleton Smoke Weed, Cannabis help Rheumatoid Arthritis
Skeleton Smoke Weed, Cannabis help Rheumatoid Arthritis

Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA) is a debilitating auto-immune disorder primarily characterized by joint damage. While it is got “arthritis” in its name, with joints being typically affected, this disease can also affect skin, eyes, lungs, heart, nerves, and blood. Treating it is challenging because, and usually involves addressing the symptoms, as the reasons are often unknown or cannot be influenced.

That is where we raise the question: “How can medical marijuana for rheumatoid arthritis help here?” — by easing some of the symptoms, potentially. Let’s start by reviewing what rheumatoid arthritis is and how cannabis can be used here.

This post is intended as information and for general knowledge only. It is not a substitute for medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. It is recommended that you talk to a healthcare professional about this before introducing cannabinoids into your daily routine (especially if you have been diagnosed with any medical conditions or are under any medication). It is not recommended to drive or operate any machinery when using cannabis- or hemp-derived products. Use responsibly!

What is Rheumatoid Arthritis?

Rheumatoid Arthritis is a disease of the immune system, where the body basically turns on itself and attacks various tissues. Normally the immune system works to attack invaders, like viruses or diseases, but when the immune system is damaged, it turns on the body.

In the case of RA, the immune system mostly attacks the joints, more precisely, the tissue around the joints, creating arthritis — damage, swelling, and pain. It can later result in loss of movement and erosion of the joint surface, causing deformity and loss of function.

What are the Symptoms of RA?

In a nutshell, they are the same for arthritis (pain, swelling, stiffness in the joints), and because it often has a slow onset, they are often mistaken for osteoarthritis, at least until the standard treatments for that do not work.

As rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disorder, the symptoms belie the underlying disease. The symptoms that accompany the ones relating to joint pain are the concerning ones, the ones that signal it is not “regular” arthritis: tiredness, temperature, appetite, and weight loss.

It is not an easy disease to identify because the symptoms overlap so many other common conditions initially. But once considered, it can be diagnosed and confirmed through a series of tests, including scans and blood work.

As an autoimmune disorder, RA is aggravated not only by infections and other viruses but also by environmental stressors and increased anxiety. The symptoms of the disease, exhaustion, pain, and loss of appetite, compound the disease by further weakening the immune system and the body. Being in constant pain and discomfort is demoralizing and stressful, further exacerbating the condition.

Benefits of Medical Marijuana for Rheumatoid Arthritis 

Medical marijuana has been shown to help with RA in many anecdotal and even scientific studies. It is an all-natural, comparatively affordable choice to consider (under the advice of your physicians) vs. standard medicines utilized for rheumatoid arthritis.

However, the question at hand is whether cannabis for rheumatoid arthritis is actually helpful or not. Another factor people often take into account when considering marijuana and arthritis is the side effects of the standard medicines in RA treatments.

By the time a diagnosis of RA is given, there’s likely a decent amount of disease progression, mainly because it is a difficult disease to identify due to the overlapping symptoms and general assumptions of overuse of joints, “normal” arthritic progression, etc. So the first inclination is to stop the disease progression. And that’s done often through a combination of treatments, noted below, each of which has its side effects.

  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) can relieve pain and reduce inflammation. Advil and Aleve are in this class. The side effects range from stomach ulcers which can lead to severe bleeding, and in rare cases, liver and kidney failure.
  • Steroids, also known as corticosteroids (e.g., prednisone), also can reduce inflammation and pain and slow joint damage. Many people, especially patients on long-term steroids, know the side effects are common and difficult, and in addition to weight gain, hair loss, and diabetes, once on steroids, it is difficult to taper off in many patients.
  • DMARDs, or disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs, – particularly strong medicine.  From methotrexate to the now infamous hydroxychloroquine, this class of drugs in rheumatoid arthritis, most importantly, can slow the progression of RA and potentially save from permanent damage to joints, systems, and organs. 
  • Biologic agents like Humira, Remicade, and Rituxan (also a class of DMARDs and often used in combination with non-biologics) act as modifiers of the biological immune response. As they target the processes triggering the inflammatory process, which is the cause of the destructivity of the joints and tissues, their side effects can significantly increase the risk of infection due to a weakened immune system that they are modulating.

While these continue to improve in efficacy and safety, the risks and costs remain. These are expensive products and have significant psychological side effects, along with physical ones.

Cannabis Safety and Side Effects

It is not new that cannabis has been used for pain and, more specifically, joint pain for thousands of years. A review of the scientific evidence for cannabis for rheumatoid arthritis, “Joints for Joints – cannabinoids in the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis,” cautiously concludes that derivatives of the cannabis plant can serve as a suitable treatment for RA.

But the truth is that many patients are, in general, not waiting for scientific consensus but seeing and hearing the results from other people with RA that they know through support groups, online forums, and their own research. 

Other 2020 research on cannabidiol has shown that CBD for arthritis possesses anti-arthritic activity and might ameliorate its symptoms via targeting synovial fibroblasts under inflammatory conditions.

Ethan Russo, MD, board-certified neurologist, psychopharmacology researcher, Medical Director of PHYTECS, and elderly clinical advisor at the Cannabinoid Research Institute, discussed this in his 2005 “Arthritis and Medical Marijuana” pamphlet:

“Science has currently revealed that the THC [tetrahydrocannabinol] element of cannabis is an effective pain-killing (analgesic) representative, and CBD (cannabidiol) has specifically immunomodulatory advantages as a villain of tumor necrosis factor-alpha, which supports advantages in the rheumatoid arthritis therapy.”

A 2009 study in the Journal of Opioid Management discovered 80% of individuals in an American discomfort clinic utilized marijuana to treat muscle mass and joint pain, while 65% of medical cannabis users in Canada reported they make use of clinical cannabis to deal with severe joint inflammation.

Science of Medical Cannabis

Medical cannabis, also known as medical marijuana, is the use of cannabis and its derivatives (such as THC and CBD for arthritis) to treat a variety of medical conditions. The cannabis plant contains over 100 different chemical compounds known as cannabinoids, which have been shown to have therapeutic effects in treating conditions such as chronic pain, muscle spasms, nausea and vomiting, and lack of appetite.

While some states in the US have legalized the use of medical cannabis, it remains illegal under federal law, and further research is needed to understand its potential medical benefits and risks fully. Hemp, though, as a plant containing no more than 0.3% of THC, has been federally legal all over the states. Nevertheless, each jurisdiction applies its own regulations and restrictions on this matter. So be careful.

To sum up, does marijuana help rheumatoid arthritis? Medical cannabis, including THC and CBD for rheumatoid arthritis, might alleviate symptoms of RA, as claimed by many users. However, your experience might differ from the one described in this post.