With Lady Gaga’s recent announcement that she suffers from fibromyalgia, many people who have never heard of the disease are now aware of it. Understanding and treating it remain a problem.
Although the American Medical Association decided fibromyalgia was a “distinct disease” 30 years ago, many doctors and nurses have continued to doubt its existence, attributing patients’ complaints to psychosomatic symptoms, mental illness or outright lying to get prescription opioid painkillers. That’s finally changing, in part because nurses are suffering from fibromyalgia, too.
Despite its lack of awareness, fibromyalgia may affect as many as 10 million Americans, 80 percent women, and up to 4 percent of the world population. It’s among the worst chronic pain conditions, with symptoms that include fatigue, pain throughout the body, trouble concentrating, loss of memory, depression and sleeping difficulties.
Fibromyalgia has no known cure, which is frustrating. Even medications to alleviate the chronic pain and other symptoms only work on some sufferers. “Only three medications … are approved by the US. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for the treatment of fibromyalgia,” The National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases notes, and none is a miracle cure.
Other medications – over-the-counter analgesics and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), prescription opioids and other painkillers – may help alleviate the symptoms but have side effects and can be addictive. Alcohol, which exacerbates pain in some people, has been found to reduce it in others, but it’s also habit-forming. No one dealing with fibromyalgia wants to end up in drug or alcohol treatment facilities.
So alternative remedies may be necessary. Unfortunately not all alternatives are available, scientifically tested or even entirely legal. Marijuana may help with chronic pain, but although 28 states have approved its medical use, it’s still illegal under federal law. Cannabis is considered a highly addictive Schedule I drug with no safe medical uses or benefits. The implication is that the only reason to use marijuana is to get high. Other Schedule I drugs include heroin and most (if not all) hallucinogens.
It’s questionable that marijuana actually belongs on that list. In a 2014 WebMD survey of 1,544 doctors 69 percent disagreed with the Controlled Substances Act, saying medical marijuana “can help with certain treatments and conditions.” Most experts also agree that marijuana has an extremely low risk of physical addiction, unlike OxyContin or alcohol. While marijuana users sometimes need to go to rehab, its far more likely you’ll need a stay at opioid or alcohol treatment facilities.
One recent study by the University of British Columbia suggests that marijuana can replace more addictive drugs, such as opioids. It might even help alcoholics stop drinking. Marijuana actually could be a rehab aid at alcohol treatment facilities. Other studies have suggested it could ease other types of pain. Some opioid use and overdose deaths decline in states with legal medical marijuana.
US. Attorney General Jeff Sessions mocked this suggestion, however, and signaled that he might crackdown on even medical marijuana.
It’s likely marijuana’s high that keeps it illegal under federal statute. But an oil derived from the chemical compound cannabidiol (CBD), an active cannabinoid in marijuana – the better-known THC is another – is legal in as many as 16 states that don’t even allow medical marijuana. That’s because CBD has no more psychoactive properties than smoking banana peels, but still may alleviate or reduce pain. Its Schedule I status means it is difficult to fund or conduct rigorous scientific tests, but it seems promising.
This Schrodinger’s cat-like legality means it’s difficult to regulate or set standards either. You don’t always know what you’re getting. Donna Gregory, whose blog Fed Up with Fatigue deals with her own fibromyalgia struggles, found that CBD oil products derived from hemp varied in quality. Some had little or no cannabidiol. CBD oil derived from medical marijuana was better regulated with better quality control.
As an oil, CBD can be taken orally (a few drops on the tongue) or added to topical lotions and edibles. One patient with Crohn’s disease – another condition marked by chronic pain and with no consistent remedy – reacted badly to smoking marijuana, but responded much better to a blueberry muffin containing CBD. He didn’t get high, but “I really didn’t feel any pain either, for the first time in years. And that to me was better than any high.”
Not that Gregory felt CBD oil was a panacea. It only helped her a little, not a lot, and the lotions helped her not at all. What was of much more benefit was vaping cannabis with THC, but mainly at night to help her sleep. A balanced CBD/THC mix gave her a “body high,” while remaining clear-headed.
While President Obama had the feds defer to the states on cannabis laws, it’s not clear that policy will continue under President Donald Trump. When campaigning in Nevada in October 2015, Trump said, “In terms of marijuana and legalization, I think that should be a state issue, state-by-state.” Sessions, his AG, however, has indicated he wants stricter enforcement.
Significantly, in Alaska – where recreational marijuana use was legalized in November 2014 – Alaska’s Alcohol and Marijuana Control Office seized stocks of CBD oil from several marijuana retailers last February, claiming they were violating state “testing and packaging requirements.”
There are potential health concerns with marijuana, maybe even CBD, particularly concerning the development of young brains, but there also are – despite claims by the DOJ and DEA – potential benefits, too. With legalization, it becomes easier to study both. When the government doesn’t allow proper scientific research, anecdotes and less rigorous test results are all we have.
From the available evidence, CBD oil will not help every fibromyalgia sufferer, but then nothing else does either.
BIO: Stephen Bitsoli writes about addiction and related subjects. A journalist for more than 20 years, and a lifelong avid reader, Stephen loves learning and sharing what he’s learned.