Therapeutic potential of cannabis in pain medicine

Br J Anaesth. 2008 Jul;101(1):59-68. doi: 10.1093/bja/aen119. Epub 2008 May 29.


Advances in cannabis research have paralleled developments in opioid pharmacology whereby a psychoactive plant extract has elucidated novel endogenous signalling systems with therapeutic significance. Cannabinoids (CBs) are chemical compounds derived from cannabis. The major psychotropic CB delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (Delta(9)-THC) was isolated in 1964 and the first CB receptor (CB(1)R) was cloned in 1990. CB signalling occurs via G-protein-coupled receptors distributed throughout the body. Endocannabinoids are derivatives of arachidonic acid that function in diverse physiological systems. Neuronal CB(1)Rs modulate synaptic transmission and mediate psychoactivity. Immune-cell CB(2) receptors (CB(2)R) may down-regulate neuroinflammation and influence cyclooxygenase-dependent pathways. Animal models demonstrate that CBRs play a fundamental role in peripheral, spinal, and supraspinal nociception and that CBs are effective analgesics. Clinical trials of CBs in multiple sclerosis have suggested a benefit in neuropathic pain. However, human studies of CB-mediated analgesia have been limited by study size, heterogeneous patient populations, and subjective outcome measures. Furthermore, CBs have variable pharmacokinetics and can manifest psychotropism. They are currently licensed as antiemetics in chemotherapy and can be prescribed on a named-patient basis for neuropathic pain. Future selective peripheral CB(1)R and CB(2)R agonists will minimize central psychoactivity and may synergize opioid anti-nociception. This review discusses the basic science and clinical aspects of CB pharmacology with a focus on pain medicine.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Analgesics, Non-Narcotic / therapeutic use
  • Cannabinoids / therapeutic use
  • Cannabis*
  • Humans
  • Pain / drug therapy*
  • Pain / metabolism
  • Phytotherapy / methods*
  • Plant Extracts / therapeutic use
  • Randomized Controlled Trials as Topic
  • Receptor, Cannabinoid, CB1 / metabolism


  • Analgesics, Non-Narcotic
  • Cannabinoids
  • Plant Extracts
  • Receptor, Cannabinoid, CB1