Many people believe that marijuana, the leaves of the cannabis plant, is useful for treating rheumatoid arthritis (RA), because studies show that it reduces pain and inflammation and aids sleep.
A study in the journal Rheumatology found that RA patients who took cannabis-based medicines had significantly less pain when moving, resting, and sleeping than those who took a placebo. The researchers reported that the differences in the 58 patients they studied over five weeks were small, but significant.
The potential effectiveness of marijuana is found in its active ingredients, delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), and cannabidiol (CBM). In a number of studies, both demonstrated anti-inflammatory effects and the potential to slow the progression of RA.
Concerns of Using Cannabis for RA
There are health concerns about using marijuana for RA. RA alone puts you at a greater risk for heart attacks and respiratory ailments, and smoking marijuana may increase those risks.
Smoking marijuana can increase your heart rate anywhere from 20 percent to 100 percent, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). One study found that within the first hour of smoking, your heart attack risk increases nearly five times. If you’re already vulnerable to heart disease, the risk may be even greater.
Smoking any substance can irritate your lungs. Studies show that people who smoke marijuana have the same respiratory problems as do people who smoke tobacco—more coughs, chest colds, and lung infections. One study found that as many as one in 10 people with RA develop lung problems over the course of their lives, and RA makes you susceptible to interstitial lung diseases. These may cause scarring of your lung tissue. That is an important consideration when weighing the pros and cons of smoking any substance, even medical marijuana. In states with medical marijuana dispensaries, you may be able to get the substance in products that don’t involve smoking it, such as baked goods and herbal teas.
Information and Availability Is Limited
Significant studies on the effects of marijuana on RA are lacking. When Australian researchers examined studies on a variety of neuromodulators—substances that can change the way you perceive pain—they found only one that looked at marijuana.
Currently, doctors in 18 states are able to prescribe medical marijuana to patients for a variety of ailments, including chronic pain. If you live in one of those states, talk to your doctor about the pros and cons of medical marijuana for RA, and whether it’s an option that’s appropriate for you.
Studies show that medical marijuana reduces inflammation and improves mobility, which are common concerns for people with RA. However, scientific research is very limited.
Smoking marijuana may increase your risk for heart disease and lung disease, which are already higher than average in people with RA.
Access to medical marijuana for any ailment, including RA, is still limited.