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Cannabis and Palliative Care


Not all medicine is meant to heal. If that seems odd to you, think about it for a moment. When you take an ibuprofen for a headache you are not healing the headache, you are dealing with the pain. If you have asthma and use an inhaler you are not being cured of your condition, you are addressing a symptom of it.

Similarly, palliative care is a medical specialization that exists to provide relief from the symptoms of a long-term serious illness, improving the patients’ quality of life and providing a strategy for long-term management while reducing the risk of developing other illnesses or medical issues. While many patients under palliative care are at the end of their lives the treatment is not focused on the terminally ill.

Some of the illnesses palliative care treats include:

  • Cancer
  • Heart disease
  • Lung disease
  • Alzheimer’s disease
  • Multiple Sclerosis
  • Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis
  • HIV

One of the many challenges that health care practitioners face in palliative care is finding the proper course of treatment that will safely bring relief and quality of life. Frequently this involves a variety of medications, some to help deal with symptoms, and others that might help with the side-effects of those drugs. Conventional medications such as opioids can take a toll on a patient over the long-term, making the job of providing effective care that much more challenging.

What this means, unfortunately, is that delivering relief often takes away from quality of life, and vice-versa. So what can be done?

Increasingly we are hearing from patients, caregivers and physicians who are using medical cannabis as part of their treatment plan, providing an additional or even alternative treatment option.

Providing many of the same benefits as conventional medications, with far fewer side-effects or negative drug interactions, medical cannabis is an appealing option for palliative care. It can help address symptoms such as chronic pain, nausea, muscle spasms, anxiety, insomnia, lack of appetite and more.

One benefit in particular resonates with loved one of patients in palliative care: a return to self. Some medications, such as opioids, provide excellent pain relief at the cost of personality. The same medicine that dulls the pain causes the patient to “drift away,” losing interest in the world. Medical cannabis can reduce or even eliminate the use of these medications, allowing patients both relief and quality of life.

While the use of medical cannabis in palliative care is on the rise, many health practitioners are still cautious about prescribing it as part of a treatment plan. As research advances and physicians are provided with the evidence they need to utilize cannabis safely we expect more and more patients to find the relief that many of ours already have.