Americans Self-Medicating for Back Pain

Man Holding Bag of Marijuana

Marijuana is used as a form of self-medication by a growing number of Americans who suffer from back issues.


Lower back pain afflicts Americans in epidemic proportions. The trend in recent years has been to opt against prescriptions drugs to try and mask the pain in favor of proactive, treatments such as chiropractic adjustments as part of a holistic approach.

However, a growing concern among healthcare professions is the growing number of individuals who are self-medicating using marijuana to ease their discomfort. A University of Colorado (UC) spine clinic recently reported that marijuana was commonly used by among patients. The drug has been legal for medical purposes in Colorado since 2000, but researchers found most of the users did not have a prescription.

Michael Finn, who co-authored the research and is an assistant professor of neurosurgery at the University of Colorado in Denver, says the results of their survey raises questions and concerns over how commonly marijuana use in the United States as a whole to temper back pain and if it’s being used simultaneously with narcotic painkillers.

With penalties for and restrictions of marijuana lessening in many states, safety concerns are being raised by Finn and others because there is little to none data on the safety or effectiveness of using marijuana to treat back pain. In the UC study, the majority of patients who used marijuana were suffering from degenerative disc conditions.

Finn and his colleagues interviewed 184 patients at the University of Colorado’s Spine Center. Among the participants the most common way to use the drug was by smoking it, (90 percent) followed by oral ingestion and vaporization (45- and 29 percent respectively.) Eighty-three percent also acknowledged taking other medications, primarily narcotic painkillers.

One in seven of the participants reported side effects including mild depression, difficulty concentrating, memory issues, weight gain, and paranoia. However, an overwhelming number of respondents claimed marijuana greatly or moderately relived their pain, and more than 80 percent said it worked as well as or better than narcotic prescriptions.

Finn stresses that the study was not able to determine whether marijuana was effective for common back pain relief. While other studies suggest the drug had helped muscular dystrophy patients and rheumatoid arthritis sufferers, its effectiveness with lower back pain has not been researched. Finn plans to conduct a study based on the various types of spine pain. He also wants to find out what happens when marijuana and opioids are used together.

Christopher Standaert, clinical professor of rehabilitation medicine at the University of Washington, explains that the concern is whether marijuana could aggravate the effects of opioids. And since most healthcare professionals agree that doctors still tend to over-prescribe opioids, adding another easily accessible drug to the mix could have far-reaching negative consequences.

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