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Cannabis and Migraines: A Possible New Treatment Option?

September 20, 2016
Cannabis as a medicine has an ancient history with anecdotes dating back to the Vedic period (c.1500 BCE) in India and Nepal. It wasn’t until 1839 that William Brooke O’Shaughnessy introduced the therapeutic potential of cannabis to the western hemisphere, and another 75 years after that until Sir William Osler, the father of modern medicine, proposed its use for the treatment of migraines and headaches. The criminalization of cannabis has since hindered our ability to research its potential; to-date, much of what we understand is largely anecdotal or based on animal or tissue culture experiments.

However, as countries legalize cannabis and as public opinion changes, cannabis research will flourish. What we already know of its ability to treat migraines and headaches is promising.

What is a Migraine and What are the Symptoms?

symptoms of migraines

A migraine is a complex condition with a number of symptoms including the following:

  • Painful headaches
  • Disturbed vision
  • Sensitivity to light (photophobia) and sound (phonophobia)
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Disorientation
  • Problems with coordination
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These symptoms can last several hours to several days, and in severe cases reversible paralysis or loss of consciousness can occur. Migraines are triggered by a variety of internal (somatic, physiological) and external (chemical, environmental) variables. People who get migraines are thought to have a genetic predisposition toward having abnormal cells in the brain stem.

What Causes Migraines?

MRI Brain Scan results of heads and skulls

Evidence suggests that migraines are the result of a variety of triggers interacting with a dysfunctional brain stem center involved in pain regulation. These triggers activate the trigeminovascular system (neurons in the trigeminal nerve that supply cerebral blood vessels with nerves), and consequently the dilation of cerebral blood vessels, which in turn activate brain circuits associated with pain and inflammation.

Anandamide and 2-arachidonylglycerol (2-AG) are endogenous cannabinoids naturally found in the nervous system that, together with cannabinoid receptors, form the endocannabinoid system (ECS). When anandamide and 2-AG interact with cannabinoid receptors, they inhibit blood vessel dilation and modulate the pain mechanisms activated by an individual’s triggers (e.g. changes in atmospheric pressure, chocolate, or caffeine).

What are the Current Migraine Treatment Options?

Current migraine drug treatments

Migraines are treated with a variety of acute (onset of an attack) and prophylactic or preventative medications. The frequency and severity of a migraine, as well as the lifestyle and constitution of an individual, are all factors to consider when choosing the proper medication.

Examples of acute medications for pain relief (analgesics) include acetaminophen, opioids, triptans, glucocorticoids (steroid hormones), and ergots. In general, preventative medications include a variety of cardiovascular drugs (beta and calcium channel blockers), anti-depressants, anti-convulsants, and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. Side effects of these medications might include nausea, dizziness, drowsiness, and muscle weakness.

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The Mayo Clinic and the Migraine Trust also recommend a variety of complementary therapies including yoga, tai chi, acupuncture, massage therapy, biofeedback, hypnotherapy, cognitive behavior therapy, as well as a selection of herbs, vitamins, and minerals. Not surprising, there is no mention of cannabis as a potentially viable approach to the treatment and prevention of migraines.

Can Cannabis be Used as Migraine Treatment and Prevention?

cannabis for treating and preventing migraine symptoms

Pain management is the best known medical benefit of cannabis, most notably of the cannabinoid CBD, which is thought to have analgesic properties that may help reduce a patient’s dependence prescription opiates as well as manage a host of negative side effects. Patients also use cannabis to help them sleep, stimulate their appetite, and manage mood and anxiety levels.

Migraine sufferers can experience debilitating pain, nausea, and vomiting. These symptoms are potentially manageable with cannabis due to the anti-emetic (vomit and nausea-preventing), anti-inflammatory, and pain-relieving properties associated with specific cannabinoids, including THC and CBD.

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As with treating any condition with cannabis, there are a number of factors to consider, including confounding ailments, dose, administration and strain, socio-economics, previous experience with cannabis, and the use of other substances such as prescription medication, tobacco, and alcohol. The best thing to do is make an appointment with a family doctor or visit a local cannabis clinic for the best medical advice.

References

  • Baron, E.P. 2015. Comprehensive Review of Medical Marijuana, Cannabinoids, and Therapeutic Implications in Migraine and Headache: What a Long Strange Trip It’s Been… American Headache Society.
  • Greco, R., V. Gasperi, M. Maccarrone, and C. Tassorelli. 2010. The Endocannabinoid System and Migraine. Experiemental Neurology 224:85-91.
  • Greco, R. And C. Tassorelli. 2015. Encocannabinoids and migraines. In Fattore, L. Editor. Cannabinoids in neurological and mental diseases. Cagliari (Italy): Elsevier inc. Pg 173-184.
  • The Mayo Clinic

Nancy-Anne Rose's Bio Image

Nancy-Anne Rose

Nancy-Anne is a writer and yoga teacher based out of Calgary, Alberta. She also works in the Canadian cannabis industry as a consultant. She has a background in plant biology and agricultural sciences.

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  • Chris Voris

    No Hoosier should have to leave their home, their families and their friends to obtain a life changing medication. #FindTheCureForNerveDisease

  • E. A. Becker

    I just wanted to thank whomever it was that recommended medical marijuana. The high CBD/ low THC strain has helped me go from 9+ migraines a month to one or two. Seriously amazing stuff.Thanks to Dr Megan.You can reach her via dr.megan.ann@gmail.com for inquiries if interested

    • Zoey Thompson

      I and my husband are very happy for this doctor she did it to us in a grand style. Today contact her for medical cannabis, cannabis oil and capsules, Charlotte’s Web which contains 20% CBD and less than 0.5% THC, and more.Thanks

  • rdrake

    I have aura migraines fairly regularly, but no headache. Usually I can see they’re coming on, I close my eyes, take a couple advil, message my neck, head and shoulders, and after about 45 minutes its gone. I did try cannabis years ago to see if it would help. It didn’t. I don’t have typical migraines so that could be why.

  • Monica Jones

    I have chronic migraines and going on 7 years with them. I have tried everything pills, shots, physical therapy, you name it I have tried it. I have read so much about this and would like to try it. I need help as to where I would get started. Please

  • Makenzie

    I am a student in college and I have suffered chronic migraines every-single-day non stop for 6 six years now. I have had botox, acupuncture, multiple therapy types, nerve blocks, 3 head surgeries, 10+ medications, and a handful of other mini procedures. Not ONE thing has helped give me relief. The only change is the medicines has major side effects and caused a lot of problems. Unfortunately, I live in Texas and cannot try medical marijuana. I much rather be off medication that does not work and try something new like this seeing as I have no more options at this point.

  • Nathalie Burnett

    Can’t sleep and I feel unpleasant pains in head. But I don’t want to take strong meds. PLEASE RECOMMEND SOMETHING TO ME, WHAT SHOULD I DO?