Rheumatology Patients Seek Guidance on CBD, Cannabis Products

Jeff Craven

February 25, 2022

Although there is a lack of evidence for use of cannabidiol (CBD) products and cannabis in rheumatology, many patients are using them anyway and want to discuss the use of these products with their rheumatologists, according to a speaker at the 2022 Rheumatology Winter Clinical Symposium.

While cannabis is still regulated as a Schedule I drug in the United States, CBD products are "all over the place," Orrin Troum, MD, a rheumatologist at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles, said in his presentation. "You can get it at the pharmacy; you can get it at the dispensaries."

Patients in rheumatology are also increasingly using cannabis across the United States, Troum said. In an abstract from the 2019 American College of Rheumatology annual meeting, researchers examined data from FORWARD, the National Databank for Rheumatic Diseases, and found 17.6% of 11,006 respondents reported using cannabis in 2017, an increase from 6.3% of respondents in 2014.

"Putting your personal biases aside, you have to be able to discuss this, and I try to do that openly with my patients," he said.

According to a 2018 report from the World Health Organization, CBD is "generally well tolerated with a good safety profile." While CBD itself is safe, CBD products offered over the counter as pills, lotions, foods, drinks, shampoos, cosmetics, oils, and other products carry the risk of being manufactured with "unverified contents" because they are not subject to regulatory oversight.

"There may be heavy metals, pesticides, microbes, [and] mycotoxins that are in these substances that you're recommending to patients," Troum said. There may also be tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) in certain CBD products, he added. Other concerns about CBD products include potential drug-drug interactions with medications used in rheumatology, and potential inhibition of drug metabolism through the CYP450 pathway.

Rheumatologists should be careful when recommending CBD products for this reason, Troum cautioned. In the absence of products approved by the Food and Drug Administration, "try to get at least products that have a good manufacturing practices certification."

Dr Orrin Troum

Troum highlighted the additional problem of dispensaries recommending specific products, and emphasized that treatment shouldn't be managed by dispensary personnel without a medical background. "Our patients are being promoted this, either from the dispensaries or even in some clinicians' offices, without the real true knowledge as to what we're dealing with," he said.

Evidence of Health Effects of CBD, Cannabis

When it comes to actual evidence of clinical benefit, "I can tell you there's lacking data for the majority of what we're being asked every day in our practices," Troum said.

The greatest evidence for the health benefits of cannabinoids appears to be for chronic pain, according to a 2017 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. Within rheumatology, a position statement released by the Canadian Rheumatology Association in 2019 found insufficient evidence to recommend cannabinoids for use in fibromyalgia, osteoarthritis, RA, or back pain, but acknowledged medical cannabis may relieve symptoms based on evidence from other conditions.

There is some preliminary evidence that cannabis can be used as a substitute for opioids when treating chronic pain, to improve symptoms of fibromyalgia and inflammatory bowel disease, and although a trial of patients with Crohn's disease failed its primary outcome of disease remission, 10 of 11 patients who smoked cigarettes with THC saw significant improvements in clinical outcomes (P = .028).

In RA, "clinical research focusing on the cannabinoids' disease-modifying qualities is still lacking," Troum said, although an active randomized, controlled trial led by researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles, is testing patients for clinical response to CBD. A separate randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial in Denmark is evaluating whether CBD, followed by open-label add-on of THC, improves chronic pain for patients with RA or ankylosing spondylitis.

The lack of data in this area largely has to do with how cannabis is regulated at the federal level and the differing regulations between U.S. states. "There's a lot of hurdles you have to go through, and therefore, I think, really has decreased the availability of good studies," he said.

Overarching Principles for Medical Cannabis in Rheumatology

For the rheumatologist counseling a patient who either is self-medicating or wants to start using medical cannabis, the Canadian Rheumatology Association created overarching principles as part of their position statement to guide decision-making for clinicians.

First, clinicians should know that cannabis shouldn't be used as an alternative treatment for standard of care in rheumatology, and the CRA noted that patients aged under 25 years should not use cannabis. CRA also recommended that clinicians try currently available treatment strategies for common reasons patients seek to use medical cannabis, such as pain relief or a sleep aid, before attempting to use medical cannabis. The CRA noted long-term effects of medical cannabis are not known for patients with rheumatic diseases.

In an interview, Arthur Kavanaugh, MD, professor of medicine at the University of California, San Diego, and director of RWCS, said that CBD and cannabis "come up quite frequently" at his clinic. "Many patients have already tried CBD, especially the topical formulation, prior to discussing it with me. In general, I do not dissuade patients from trying CBD, especially topical."

Typically, he said his practice situation gives him access to a counselor from the anesthesia department with "significant expertise" in dosing and formulations. "It would be great if there were proper controlled trials of specific formulations to allow us to have real scientific data that may help the patients make optimal choices."

One issue that is brought up by patients is cost. "These preparations can be relatively expensive," Kavanaugh said, but noted that this is also a consideration when patients decide to use any therapy.

Troum reported having financial relationships with eight pharmaceutical companies.

This article originally appeared on MDedge.com, part of the Medscape Professional Network.


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