Medical marijuana is not recommended for teenagers with chronic pain, despite the fact that the cause of chronic pain can be hard to identify and some medications do not work, Mayo Clinic researchers say.

The finding was published in the July 2013 issue of Mayo Clinic Proceedings.

There is limited information regarding the risks of using marijuana to treat pain in adults, let alone among teenagers – when the brain is still developing.

Previous research found that among patients with chronic neuropathic pain, smoking marijuana relieved pain and improved their mood.

Oxford University’s Centre for Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging of the Brain (FMRIB) reported in the journal Pain that using cannabis for pain relief does not eliminate pain, it just makes it more bearable.

The adverse effects of short-term marijuana use, include:

  • Fatigue
  • Impaired concentration
  • Slower reaction time

This cognitive impairment associated with its use means that doctors should be extremely careful when screening teens with chronic pain for marijuana use.

Medical marijuana is becoming increasingly prescribed for the treatment of chronic pain, yet the long-term effects haven’t been evaluated.

Co-author J. Michael Bostwick, M.D., a Mayo Clinic psychiatrist, stresses that the consequences of marijuana “may be very, very severe, particularly for adolescents who may get rid of their pain — or not — at the expense of the rest of their life.”

Three high-schoolers at the Mayo Clinic’s pediatric chronic pain clinic reported using marijuana. Despite their drug use, they all said that their pain only got worse.

In addition, the teenagers said that they noticed impaired functioning along with much more difficulty in becoming socially active.

Excessive marijuana use induces the following symptoms, which many patients with chronic pain already have:

  • Overwhelming anxiety
  • Sedation
  • Loss of motivation
  • Concentration difficulties
  • Dizziness
  • Impaired reflexes

In addition, there has been research to indicate that teenagers who use marijuana are at an increased risk of developing psychosis and paranoia. Smoking marijuana more than once a week has also been linked to permanent cognitive damage.

Around ten percent of marijuana users eventually become addicted, according to Dr. Bostwick.

Dr. Bostwick said that marijuana only makes function worse, not better, which is the last thing these patients need:

“If you’re a pain patient, and you’re using this drug or others, narcotics as well, one of the side effects is to be out of it, and out of it when the goal of a pain rehab program is actually to get you into it. The whole point is function restoration, not further functional decline.”

He added that there needs to be further research to examine what effect marijuana has on overall function, as well estimating the percentage of teens that smoke cannabis as part of their pain regime, before entering a rehab program.

The researchers stress that patients who smoke marijuana should be educated about the risks of marijuana use and immediately be offered other forms of treatment which are less harmful and better understood, such as: physical therapy, biofeedback, and acupuncture.

Dr. Bostwick, concluded:

“If you will not work on your life until your pain is gone, then you’re probably going to be stuck for a very long time, because the kinds of chronic pain that show up in pain clinics tend to not ever completely go away. They tend to be managed. People have to learn to get on with their lives even despite the pain.”

An Australian study revealed that long-term use of marijuana by young people was linked to a higher risk of developing psychosis, especially those who started using the substance in their teens.

Written by Joseph Nordqvist