When 42-year-old Danielle Simone Brand started having hormonal migraines, she first turned to cannabidiol (CBD) oil, eventually adding an occasional pull on a prefilled Δ-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) vape for nighttime use. She was careful to avoid THC during work hours. A parenting and cannabis writer, Brand had more than a cursory background in cannabinoid medicine and had spent time at her local California dispensary discussing various cannabinoid components that might help alleviate her pain.
A self-professed “do-it-yourselfer,” Brand continues to use cannabinoids for her monthly headaches, forgoing any other pain medication. “There are times for conventional medicine in partnership with your doctor, but when it comes to health and wellness, women should be empowered to make decisions and self-experiment,” she told Medscape Medical News.
Brand is not alone. Significant numbers of women are replacing or supplementing prescription medications with cannabinoids, often without consulting their primary care physician, ob/gyn, or other specialist. At times, women have tried to have these conversations, only to be met with silence or worse.
Take Linda Fuller, a 58-year-old yoga instructor from Long Island who says that she uses CBD and THC for chronic sacroiliac pain after a car accident and to alleviate stress-triggered eczema flares. “I’ve had doctors turn their backs on me; I’ve had nurse practitioners walk out on me in the middle of a sentence,” she told Medscape Medical News.
Fuller says her conversion to cannabinoid medicine is relatively new; she never used cannabis recreationally before her accident but now considers it a gift. She doesn’t keep aspirin in the house and refused pain medication immediately after she injured her back.
Diana Krach, a 34-year-old writer from Maryland, says she’s encountered roadblocks about her decision to use cannabinoids for endometriosis and for pain from Crohn’s disease. When she tried to discuss her CBD use with a gastroenterologist, he interrupted her: “Whatever pot you’re smoking isn’t going to work, you’re going on biologics,” he told her.
Krach had not been smoking anything but had turned to a CBD tincture for symptom relief after prescription pain medications failed to help.
Brand, Fuller, and Krach are the tip of the iceberg when it comes to women seeking symptom relief outside the medicine cabinet. A recent survey in the Journal of Women’s Health of almost 1000 women show that 90% (most between the ages of 35 and 44) had used cannabis and would consider using it to treat gynecologic pain. Roughly 80% said they would consider using it for procedure-related pain or other conditions. Additionally, women have reported using cannabinoids for posttraumatic stress disorder, sleep disturbances or insomnia, anxiety, and migraine headaches.
Observational survey data have likewise shown that 80% of women with advanced or recurrent gynecologic malignancies who were prescribed cannabis reported that it was equivalent or superior to other medications for relieving pain, neuropathy, nausea, insomnia, decreased appetite, and anxiety.
In another survey, almost half (45%) of women with gynecologic malignancies who used nonprescribed cannabis for the same symptoms reported that they had reduced their use of prescription narcotics after initiating use of cannabis.
The Gray Zone
There has been a surge in self-reported cannabis use among pregnant women in particular. The National Survey on Drug Use and Health findings for the periods 2002–2003 and 2016–2017 highlight increases in adjusted prevalence rates from 3.4% to 7% in past-month use among pregnant women overall and from 5.7% to 12.1% during the first trimester alone.
“The more that you talk to pregnant women, the more that you realize that a lot are using cannabinoids for something that is basically medicinal, for sleep, for anxiety, or for nausea,” Katrina Mark, MD, an ob/gyn and associate professor of medicine at the University of Maryland, in College Park, Maryland, told Medscape Medical News. “I’m not saying it’s fine to use drugs in pregnancy, but it is a grayer conversation than a lot of colleagues want to believe. Telling women to quit seems foolish since the alternative is to be anxious, don’t sleep, don’t eat, or use a medication that also has risks to it.”
One observational study shows that pregnant women themselves are conflicted. Although the majority believe that cannabis is “natural” and “safe” compared with prescription drugs, they aren’t entirely in the dark about potential risks. They often express frustration with practitioners’ responses when these topics are broached during office visits. An observational survey among women and practitioners published earlier this year highlights that only half of doctors openly discouraged perinatal cannabis use and that others opted out of the discussion entirely.
This is the experience of many of the women that Medscape Medical News spoke with. Krach pointed out that “there’s a big deficit in listening; the doctor is supposed to be working for our behalf, especially when it comes to reproductive health.”
Mark believes that a lot of the conversation has been clouded by the illegality of the substance but that cannabinoids deserve as much of a fair chance for discussion and consideration as other medicines, which also carry risks in pregnancy. “There’s literally no evidence that it will work in pregnancy [for these symptoms], but there’s no evidence that it doesn’t, either,” she told Medscape Medical News. “When I have this conversation with colleagues who do not share my views, I try to encourage them to look at the actual risks vs the benefits vs the alternatives.”
The “Entourage Effect”
Data supporting cannabinoids have been mostly laboratory-based, case-based, or observational. However, several well-designed (albeit small) trials have demonstrated efficacy for chronic pain conditions, including neuropathic and headache pain, as well as in Crohn’s disease. Most investigators have concluded that dosage is important and that there is a synergistic interaction between compounds (known as the “entourage effect”) that relates to cannabinoid efficacy or lack thereof, as well as possible adverse effects.
In addition to legality issues, the entourage effect is one of the most important factors related to the medical use of cannabinoids. “There are literally thousands of cultivars of cannabis, each with their own phytocannabinoid and terpenic profiles that may produce distinct therapeutic effects, [so] it is misguided to speak of cannabis in monolithic terms. It is like making broad claims about soup,” writes coauthor Samoon Ahmad, MD, in Medical Marijuana: A Clinical Handbook.
Additionally, the role that reproductive hormones play is not entirely understood. Reproductive-aged women appear to be more susceptible to a “telescoping” (gender-related progression to dependence) effect in comparison with men. Ziva Cooper, PhD, research director of the UCLA Cannabis Research Initiative, told Medscape Medical News. She explained that research has shown that factors such as the degree of exposure, frequency of use, and menses confound this susceptibility.
It’s the Data…
Frustration over cannabinoid therapeutics abound, especially when it comes to data, legal issues, and lack of training. “The feedback that I hear from providers is that there isn’t enough information; we just don’t know enough about it,” Mark said, “but there is information that we do have, and ignoring it is not beneficial.”
Cooper concurs. Although she readily acknowledges that data from randomized, placebo-controlled trials are mostly lacking, she says, “There are signals in the literature providing evidence for the utility of cannabis and cannabinoids for pain and some other effects.”
Other practitioners told Medscape Medical News that some patients admit to using cannabinoids but that they lack the ample information to guide these patients. By and large, many women equate “natural” with “safe,” and some will experiment on their own to see what works.
Those experiments are not without risk, which is why “it’s just as important for physicians to talk to their patients about cannabis use as it is for patients to be forthcoming about that use,” said Cooper. “It could have implications on their overall health as well as interactions with other drugs that they’re using.”
That balance from a clinical perspective on cannabis is crucial, writes coauthor Kenneth Hill, MD, in Medical Marijuana: A Clinical Handbook. “Without it,” he writes, “the window of opportunity for a patient to accept treatment that she needs may not be open very long.”
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