Young adults more likely to use cannabis products to manage chronic pain

28th October 2021

Young adults are twice as likely to turn to cannabis products to manage the symptoms of chronic pain compared with those aged over 45, according to a recent survey. Patients are also more likely to report experiencing chronic pain, with a large majority saying that they are in pain every day.

The survey, conducted online by The Harris Poll on behalf of the Samueli Foundation, collected data of around 2,000 US adults. The results revealed that more than one-fifth (22%) of respondents aged 18-34 use cannabis and/or CBD oil to manage their pain, compared with 11% of those aged 45+.

Wayne Jonas, MD, executive director of Integrative Health Programs at Samueli Foundation, said of these findings: “The prevalence of persistent pain among young adults is alarming, and their use of cannabis or CBD oil indicates they are seeking more ways to manage their pain through self-care.”

“We know cannabis and CBD can be effective in treating pain that stems from various conditions, such as cancer. But there’s insufficient evidence to support the effectiveness of CBD and cannabis in treating common chronic pain conditions.”

Jonas suggests that patients with chronic pain should consider other options before turning to cannabis products.

“Instead, young people should be working with their physicians to first try non-drug treatments that are recommended by the medical community, such as massage therapy, yoga, physical therapy, and exercise.”

According to the survey results, 78% of respondents are currently using non-drug treatments – some alone, and some in combination with pharmacological treatments. Seventy per cent of respondents reported using pharmacological treatments.

Over-the-counter pain medication was the most commonly reported treatment for chronic pain management (53%), followed by exercise (43%), heat/ice (34%), healthy eating (26%), and cannabis/CBD (16%).

A preference for natural, non-drug treatment options is increasingly being seen in chronic pain patients – a trend mirrored in the results of this survey. A large majority of respondents that are not currently using non-drug treatments report that they would be interested in doing so: 80% of this group said they would be interested in trying healthy eating as a way to manage their pain, followed by exercise (71%), massage therapy (68%), physical therapy (62%) and mindfulness-based stress reduction or meditation (61%).

The most commonly reported problem in young adults with chronic pain is back pain (32%), followed by neck and knee-related pain (20%).

Young adults with chronic pain – most commonly experienced in their back (32%), neck and knees (20% each) – are looking for help from health care providers to manage their pain, according to the online survey conducted in September of more than 2,000 U.S. adults. Nearly 3 in 10 young adults with chronic pain (29%) say they are talking to their doctors more often about their pain since the pandemic began, compared to just 15% of those age 45 and older. However, three-quarters of young adults (75%) also say they don’t know what kind of health care provider can best help them manage their pain.

Dr Jonas points out that these results should be a wake-up call to physicians that their patients are “looking for more information from them about managing their chronic pain, especially for non-drug approaches.

“It’s up to providers across the healthcare system to engage in regular conversations with patients to uncover the best ways to manage their pain on a daily basis,” he concludes.

While evidence supporting the use of cannabis use for chronic pain conditions is still limited, there is a growing collection of studies that suggest such therapies may be useful. Furthermore, chronic pain is consistently reported as the most common reason for the prescription of medical cannabis products in many countries where the treatment is legal.

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