Saying No to Opioids and Marijuana: What are Natural Pain Relief Alternatives?
by Lisa DiFalco
As more and more is made of the dangers of prescription opioids and the controversial use of medical marijuana, natural pain relief methods may be worth re-examining. Healthcare providers and the general public are becoming more aware that opioid use alone and in combination with other prescription drugs can lead directly to death by overdose. Physicians and patients are turning to medical marijuana as an alternative. An estimated 1.25 million patients currently use medical marijuana and more states are coming into the fold. However, it still does not mean that a prescription for medical marijuana is easy to come by, nor does it mean that all population groups should depend upon medical marijuana to ease their pain. Those that have no access to medical marijuana or want to use natural methods of pain relief should learn of the alternatives currently available to reduce and manage chronic pain. Patients, case managers and healthcare professionals can benefit from learning more about natural alternatives to manage chronic pain.
Should Everyone Use Prescription Opioids and Medical Marijuana?
In recent news, it appears the dangers of opioids for a certain population of patients are growing. In The Washington Post’s, Risky alone, deadly together, readers learn more about the deadly combination of prescription drug combinations that appears to have a role in the increasing rates of premature death in white women. At the same time that death rates are falling for middle-aged Hispanics and Blacks, middle-aged white women are dying from opioid overdoses, often prescribed in tandem with anti-anxiety medications. The Washington Post analyzed Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data and found:
- A 400 percent increase in the number of deaths from opiate overdoses in middle-aged white women from 1999 to 2014; and
- 54,000 deaths, about a third of deaths in the most recent years, were directly related to the use of benzodiazepines, a class of anti-anxiety drugs.
Opioids and benzodiazepines suppress the gag reflex, heart rate and respiration. Their use in combination and with alcohol can be deadly. It was found in an analysis of the recent National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, that:
- White women were far more likely to be prescribed both anti-anxiety drugs and opiates;
- White women were prescribed opiates more often than women of other races; and
- White women were five times as likely to be prescribed the combination of anti-anxiety drugs and opiates when compared to white men.
In response to the growing concern, the CDC has warned physicians against prescribing the combination of benzodiazepines and opioids and to limit such prescriptions to those with fatal diseases. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has recently started requiring warning labels on not only opioids, but also on benzodiazepines. Physicians and patients should grow more aware of this dangerous combination and look for alternative options when prescribing or offering suggestions about pain management.
Medical marijuana is now being used in many states for pain relief, some conditions and nausea. The Mayo Clinic has noted the potential benefit to children and adults with certain health conditions. However, not too long ago the Mayo Clinic specifically identified a group of patients that should not be prescribed medical marijuana for chronic pain. In the CBS News article, Mayo Clinic: Teens with chronic pain should not use medical marijuana, the Mayo Clinic believes that there is not enough information on the effects of medical marijuana on adolescents and suggests that marijuana not be prescribed for the age group. Negative side effects of marijuana include:
- Slowed reaction times;
- Impaired concentration;
- Difficulty problem solving;
- Impaired ability to learn and memorize;
- Anxiety; and
There is a potential for marijuana users to become addicted as seen in about one of every 10 users and those under 25 are more likely to develop an addiction. Dr. J. Michael Bostwick, Mayo Clinic psychiatrist and commentary co-author, wrote in their press release:
“The consequences may be very, very severe, particularly for adolescents who may get rid of their pain—or not—at the expense of the rest of their life.”
Although there is a growing acceptance of the use of medical marijuana nationwide, there are limitations as to its application for all ages. There are studies linking the use of weed to the development of psychotic symptoms for those under 16 and in adolescents and young adults.
What are patients in these groups to do as they battle chronic pain? What alternatives can be offered for those that are neither candidates for opioids nor for medical marijuana or who want to avoid the risk of dependency altogether with natural pain relief methods?
What are Natural Health Suggestions for Pain Relief?
There are many natural health remedies that may prove of use to patients. Some suggestions from William Welches, DO, PhD, a pain management physician, include:
- Osteopathic manipulation therapy (OMT) and acupuncture for pain relief in the back, neck, shoulders, chest and more;
- An anti-inflammatory diet that is about 80 to 90 percent vegan; and
Then there are cases such as with Cynthia Toussaint, a dancer that developed complex pain syndrome, and suffered from excruciating chronic pain throughout the body. She found little benefit from pain medications and finally came to find that the use of guided imagery and Feldenkrais allowed her to start experiencing relief and improved her ability to perform activities without assistance. She co-founded For Grace, a nonprofit organization that assists women with chronic pain.
While opioids and medical marijuana may serve to reduce pain for a number of patients, there are natural alternatives that can potentially help those that do not want to form a dependency on prescriptions or suffer their side effects. OMT is covered under many insurance plans and other suggestions may help those that find that being touched is painful. It is time that western medical practitioners help educate patients as to the natural alternatives currently available and offer additional options of pain relief to those that need it the most.