Fibromyalgia isn’t an easy disorder to live with. Sufferers are plagued with widespread chronic pain. But with no visible signs of illness, it’s easy for those around them to discount or doubt that there’s a problem. Many go years without the correct diagnosis, and even then, the treatment options are limited and often ineffective.
But cannabis provides some hope in this painful situation. Many fibromyalgia sufferers, myself included, have found that marijuana provides significant relief of their symptoms, and helps them lead a more functional life. Now the science is starting to catch up with these patient reports—and shows that cannabis is an effective treatment option for fibromyalgia.
Fibromyalgia is one of the most common chronic pain conditions, affecting around 10 million people in the U.S. alone. While men and women both suffer from the condition, it’s most common in women, who make up 75–90% of fibromyalgia sufferers.
For those of us with this disorder, life can be a painful place. Characterized by widespread musculoskeletal pain, fibromyalgia patients like myself, have significantly heightened sensitivity to pain, and tend to feel constantly sore and achy throughout their body.
Additionally, fibromyalgia comes with other symptoms that affect functionality, such as:
- Tension headaches
- Issues with sleep
- Memory problems
While scientists aren’t quite sure how or why fibromyalgia occurs, they believe that it has to do with how the brain processes pain signals. In fibromyalgia patients, these signals are amplified, leading to intensified responses to painful stimuli and a general sensation of discomfort even when no painful stimuli are present.
While researchers say that there’s a genetic component, with fibromyalgia running in families, symptoms can sometimes begin after a physical trauma, surgery, infection or significant psychological stress. In other cases, symptoms accumulate gradually over time without a single triggering event.
Regardless, there’s no known cure for the condition. But some find improvement with lifestyle changes like:
- Certain medications
- Dietary overhauls
- Stress-reduction measures like meditation and body-focused mindfulness
Unfortunately, the options for medications, such as Lyrica and Cymbalta, aren’t great. These pharmaceuticals have relatively low levels of efficacy and some serious negative side effects such as fatigue, nausea and tremors.
My Fibromyalgia Story
Thankfully, cannabis can help. I know because it helps me with my fibromyalgia every day.
First diagnosed in my early 20s, I always had extra pain, but was having a hard time coping with it as I transitioned into adult life.
With the widespread discomfort, fatigue and anxiety, college life was challenging. I couldn’t sleep; I was in constant pain; and I was having a hard time focusing and concentrating when doing schoolwork. I was so sick that I had to take time off from school. I simply couldn’t function and began to seriously contemplate applying for disability. It wasn’t the life I had imagined for myself, but it seemed like my most likely outcome.
The doctors prescribed a long line of medications to try. I don’t remember them all, but I did try the two most common medications for fibromyalgia. First, there was Lyrica, but it left me so mentally confused that I could no longer read. I simply couldn’t stay focused on the words long enough to complete a sentence.
Then there was Cymbalta, which seemed to help a little at first, but then stopped working after only one year. It left me addicted to the medication and suffering from its negative side effects, which only compounded my problems.
Then I tried cannabis. For the first time in my life I experienced what it was like to be without the widespread pain. I could finally move around with ease. I could think clearly. I could sleep. I could live my life. It felt like a miracle, as I began to function better day by day.
I went back to school and finished my Ph.D. program. I was able to jump into the workforce and create a career that I love. And 10 years later, the miracle hasn’t ended. I still take cannabis every day, and it continues to provide the relief that I need to live my life.
Studies Show Cannabis Can Help Fibromyalgia Sufferers
As it turns out, I’m not the only one who has experienced this marijuana miracle. Researchers are starting to look at cannabis as a fibromyalgia treatment and are seeing incredible results.
For one thing, scientists are starting to notice what I did: Cannabis is much more effective than the pharmaceutical options are. One study of 1,300 people with fibromyalgia conducted by the National Pain Foundation showed that cannabis is effective at treating fibromyalgia—and much more so than the other medical options are.
Of the respondents in the study, 62% reported that cannabis was very effective at relieving their symptoms while 33% said it helped them a little; only 5% said it didn’t help at all.
But with doctor-prescribed pharmaceuticals, the results were far less favorable. Only 10% said that Lyrica was very effective, with 61% saying it didn’t help at all. Cymbalta was only considered very effective by 8% of respondents, with 60% reporting no positive effect at all.
In a more recent study, scientists treated a group of fibromyalgia patients with marijuana and found that all participants reported significant improvement in every tested parameter. Half of the patients were able to stop taking any other medications for fibromyalgia. And only 30% experienced any negative side effects—but these were all reported to be very mild.
The researchers concluded that cannabis had significant favorable effects for patients with few adverse effects.
A similar study found positive results as well. After only two hours of cannabis use, patients reported:
- Statistically significant reduction of pain and stiffness
- Enhancement of relaxation
- An increase in sleepiness
- Increased feelings of well-being
- Improved mental health
While the reliability of these results could be improved by conducting larger, double-blind studies, all of these studies had overwhelmingly positive results pointing towards marijuana’s efficacy for fibromyalgia. If you’re suffering from this difficult-to-live-with condition, cannabis could be the best option for you.
Using Marijuana to Help Treat Fibromyalgia
There are lots of options when it comes to taking marijuana for fibromyalgia symptoms, because many different methods and types of cannabis can help with widespread pain. But the different options can help in different ways, so it’s good to understand their potential uses.
If you’re not interested in inhaled methods, sublingual marijuana options like tinctures or sprays can provide a similar quick- acting effect. The downside is that these methods don’t last as long, so you may need to keep using them every two to three hours to maintain pain relief.
For longer-lasting relief, look to marijuana edibles. These tasty options stay in your system longer, so you can go four to six hours without taking another dose. But edibles take much longer to start working (sometimes up to two hours), so aren’t as ideal when you need pain relief right away.
I usually go for a combination of inhaled or sublingual and edible methods. I keep a consistent dose of edible cannabis in my system to maintain pain relief, and I use inhaled methods to fill in the gaps when I’m experiencing more intense pain or need pain relief right away.
Occasionally, topicals are nice as well—providing quick relief to any area where it’s applied. While this can be great if you have a particular area that needs attention, it’s not very practical for treating the widespread pain of fibromyalgia, because you need to apply it to the entire body.
If you’re using a lotion or cream, this would be time-consuming and inefficient. Still, one topical option works well: bath salts and bath bombs. By infusing your bathtub with cannabis, you can soak your entire body in calming cannabinoids. It’s a great way to unwind after a long day and give your body some extra pain relief.
Photo credit: Brooke Cagle
If you’re new to cannabis and want to learn more, take a look at our Cannabis 101 index of articles. HelloMD can help you get your medical marijuana recommendation; it’s easy, private and 100% online.