Medical marijuana is the term used to describe marijuana as used for therapeutic purposes to help combat pain as well as other problems. Marijuana appears to have only relatively minor side effects and risks and has been shown to be very effective in helping patients to live with nausea, anxiety, headaches and various other ailments and concerns.
If you are struggling with chronic pain, whether that be due to a disease, a mental health issue, migraines, an injury or even a treatment such as chemotherapy, then your doctor might recommend medical marijuana as a treatment.
But how precisely can medical marijuana help and what does it do to your brain?
Understanding Your Brain
Before we go into more depth regarding the mechanisms of action that medical marijuana plays on the body, it’s first worth looking at how the brain works in a little detail to help you understand what’s going on precisely.
Essentially then, the brain is made up of a large web of interconnected cells called ‘neurons’ or ‘brain cells’. These cells form as we have new experiences and as we lay down new memories while others exist from birth to regulate various aspects of our experience. For instance, we have cells that correspond with individual ‘pixels’ in our eyes and when these fire we see light in those points.
Every sensation that you experience is a result of your neurons firing and communicating with one another. Because your neurons don’t actually touch, the firings between them need to cross a small gap called a ‘synapse’. Thus, in order to communicate your neurons will fire a signal consisting of a small electrical impulse as well as a series of chemicals called ‘neurotransmitters’ from one to the other. Those neurotransmitters essentially are what contain the emotional intent of the signals and they tell us whether something is important or not, whether it is good or not and whether it is painful or not.
As you go through life then, your various interactions with the world will cause a number of neurons to fire in different parts of your brain, and depending on which areas of the brain are firing, you will experience different subjective sensations and feelings.
How Marijuana Alters the Brain
When you take marijuana, you are effectively consuming a compound called THC. THC works by stimulating ‘receptors’ designed to receive specific chemicals called ‘cannabinoids’ which include a number of neurotransmitters like anadamide.
Essentially, THC plugs the cannabinoid receptors at the ends of your neurotransmitters thereby stimulating them and preventing them from communicating normally by receiving other cannabinoid neurotransmitters.
But not every cell in your brain has cannabinoid receptors. Specifically, these are most dense in the hippocampus, amygdala, basal ganglia, hypothalamus, cerebellum and brain stem. Among other things these areas of the brain are responsible for handling your short term memory and converting short term memories to long term memories. Additionally, they take care of your feelings of motivation, your emotions and your appetite. Basically, these are the parts of the brain that tell you what is important and thus motivate you in order to go out and do things.
Because they’re all being stimulated at once while also being impaired, you then get the feeling of having all of these areas ‘switched on’ while they won’t work quite as well. This means that you become easily distracted as everything takes on equal ‘importance’, it means that you therefore also lose any sense of stress, it means that you lose the ability to effectively form new short term memories and it means that you feel a sense of euphoria as all of your ‘reward systems’ fire. Finally, it also stimulates your appetite due to action in your hippocampus (which is related to your drive and reward systems).
How This Combats Pain
You’ll notice that we haven’t really mentioned any areas of the brain relating to pain. That’s because none of the brain areas that directly relate to pain appear to light up during marijuana use in brain scans. As a result, we are forced to conclude that the effect on pain is not direct.
The reason that marijuana is so effective for treating pain is that pain is so much a psychological effect. What many people don’t realize is that all pain is created in the brain and that you can easily be distracted from. If you have a stomach ache and you watch a funny film or go out with friends, then often you will forget about your pain, simply because you are not focusing on it. Pain requires focus in order for us to feel the sensation.
Marijuana then appears to work by altering the brain’s sense of what’s important, thereby preventing us from suffering so badly from the discomfort. Because we don’t form memories as reliably we might also not remember the pain as much. Finally, the release of reward hormones can trigger an analgesic effect in themselves. Together, all these things make marijuana a very effective treatment for chronic pain.