Marijuana for Migraine? Some Tentative Evidence

Jim Kling

June 25, 2020

Medical marijuana may have promise for managing headache pain, according to results from a small study conducted at the Jefferson Headache Center at Thomas Jefferson University. The researchers found general satisfaction with medical marijuana, more frequent use as an abortive medication rather than a preventative, and more than two-thirds using the inhaled form rather than oral.

Dr Claire Ceriani

Many patients ask about medical marijuana, but there is relatively little data on its effects on headache. Studies are generally retrospective, and often focus on marijuana use for general pain, with subset analyses looking at headache, according to coauthor Claire Ceriani, MD, who is a headache fellow at Jefferson. "A lot of patients are interested in medical marijuana but don't know how to integrate it into the therapy plan they already have – whether it should be just to treat bad headaches when they happen, or is it meant to be a preventive medicine they use every day? We have some data out there that it can be helpful, but not a lot of specific information to guide your recommendations," said Dr. Ceriani in an interview.

Although the research is far from a final word on the subject, it did have some take-home messages, said Dr. Ceriani. "Most people seem to find it effective as an abortive medication that might be able to take the place of some of the prescription medications that they were previously using," she said.

The study was part of the virtual annual meeting of the American Headache Society.

An Effective Abortive Therapy?

The study began shortly after the Jefferson Headache Center became certified to offer medical marijuana around the beginning of 2019. "We wanted to start keeping track of these patients from the get-go so we'd be able to learn as much as possible from them and help guide the recommendations we give to patients in the future," said Dr. Ceriani.

The study included 48 patients with migraine or other types of chronic headache who received medical marijuana treatment between January and September 2019. After collecting baseline information from medical records and questionnaires filled out at marijuana treatment initiation, the researchers followed up periodically with telephone questionnaires to assess treatment response and side effects. About half of the participants (56.3%) reported daily headache. 14.6% had posttraumatic headache, 10.4% new daily persistent headache, and 4.2% tension-type headache. Additional symptoms were common, including anxiety (72.9%) and insomnia (62.5%).

A total of 28 subjects completed a follow-up questionnaire over the phone. Out of the 28 participants , 3 had stopped using marijuana. Of 25 subjects who continued use, 71.4% used it two or more times per week, and 25.0% used it every day. Among participants, 50% used a THC-dominant strain of marijuana. Overall, 71.4% used an inhaled form.

Side effects included dry mouth/throat (46.4%), dry/red eyes (35.7%), fatigue/lethargy (35.7%), and increased appetite (35.7%).

Before starting on marijuana, 46.4% of the subjects used abortive medications at least 10 days per month. After starting marijuana treatment, the rate dropped to 25.0%. Marijuana use was associated with improvements in anxiety: 57.1% who had anxiety reported improvement with marijuana use, as did 78.6% with insomnia. On a scale of 10, the average rating of marijuana's usefulness was 5.9, and 17.9% rated it as 10.

Several Concerns

The study has numerous limitations. It has a small sample size, it is from a single center, and the patient population had relatively severe symptoms. Such studies are "fraught with possible bias," said Andrew Charles, MD, professor of neurology and director of the UCLA Goldberg Migraine Program, when asked to comment.

He pointed out that one key concern for marijuana is concerns over worsening of the condition or refractoriness caused by medication overuse. The cannabinoid receptors it acts on bear some similarity to opioid receptors, and opioid overuse headache is well known. The recent changes in marijuana laws makes it an important issue, one that patients often asked about. But prospective clinical trials face a range of roadblocks: Marijuana remains a controlled substance, it would be difficult to create a placebo control, and no large companies are likely to sponsor such a trial.

"But I think it's important to keep talking about and developing evidence as much as we can and addressing not just the benefits but also being keenly aware of the possible adverse effects, especially medication overuse," said Dr. Charles.

Dr Angela Hou

The authors also acknowledged the study's limitations, "but I think there is value, because there are definitely specific patterns we were able to find in terms of what's helpful for patients, and we also found that a lot of patients also have other disorders in addition to headache, like anxiety and insomnia. And we found that those patients in particular seemed to have more benefit than most with medical marijuana," said coauthor Angela Hou, MD, who is also a headache fellow at Jefferson.

Dr. Hou and Dr. Ceriani cautioned against use of marijuana in any patient with a substance use disorder, as well as the inhaled form in patients with chronic lung conditions.

The study received no funding. Dr. Ceriani and Dr. Hou had no relevant financial disclosures. Dr. Charles has consulted for Amgen, Biohaven, Eli Lilly, Novartis, and Lundbeck.

SOURCE: Marmura MJ et al. AHS 2020, Abstract 842679.

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