Medical Marijuana and Physical Therapy: The Highs and Lows


Your patient arrives for their regular physical therapy appointment and you inquire about their pain levels. They tell you that the physical therapy has been working and then they mention that they’ve also started using medical marijuana to alleviate some of their pain. Medical marijuana to treat pain is trending, as more than half of the U.S. has legalized the substance in some form. Yet, what roles do medical marijuana and physical therapy have? The American Physical Therapy Association shared its perspective on medical marijuana and physical therapy, and it stated that physical therapists should avoid recommending marijuana use to their patients, but they should still be educated on its effects so that they’re aware of how it could benefit or harm their patients. Regardless of how you feel about the controversial cannabis plant, many of your patients may already be using medical marijuana at the recommendation of their physician.

Medical Marijuana and Physical Therapy: The High Points

A high point to the current trend of using medical marijuana to treat pain is that medical marijuana and physical therapy were both identified as potential solutions to the opioid epidemic. For example, exercise and physical therapy have proven to be effective in treating pain and are becoming a more popular alternative to the quick fix of prescribing pain medication. Medical marijuana, too, is seen as a potential solution to the opioid epidemic. An article in the Atlantic pointed out that marijuana is now growing in popularity to treat both acute and chronic pain as well as the cravings people experience during opioid withdrawal. Some studies have proven that in states where medical marijuana use is legal, painkiller subscriptions, and overdose deaths have started to decline. The healthcare industry as a whole is focused on finding ways to reduce opioid prescriptions, as President Donald Trump declared the opioid epidemic a national emergency.

medical marijuana and physical therapy

Medical marijuana and physical therapy are both seen as potential solutions to the opioid epidemic.

Another high point to medical marijuana from a physical therapy perspective is that it’s been found to have positive treatment effects on things like:

  • Fibromylagia
  • Neuropaathic pain
  • Spasticity with multiple sclerosis
  • Rheumatoid and osteoarthritis
  • Chronic musculoskeletal pain

Medical Marijuana and Physical Therapy: The Low Points

The downside to medical marijuana and physical therapy is that there is much controversy surrounding the cannabis plant, from doctors and patients all the way to state and federal government. Most importantly, from a physical therapy standpoint, is that doctors and patients don’t seem to agree on medical marijuana as an option for pain management. While one study found that 93 percent of patients prefer to use medical marijuana over opioid pain pills to treat their pain, another study found that doctors would rather prescribe opioids than see their patients use marijuana. Patients reported that marijuana gave them pain relief and that they were able to cut back on their opioid dependency by using cannabis, while doctors remain focused on there being very little scientific evidence that marijuana helps with pain management.

As a physical therapist working with physicians to manage patient care, it’s important for you to be aware that marijuana can cause short-term impairments in cognition, memory, alertness, balance, and coordination. This could directly impact your treatment plans or your patient’s response to your therapy. Marijuana could possibly negatively affect your patient’s…

  • Ability to drive
  • Risk of falls
  • Workplace or school tasks

Medical Marijuana and Physical Therapy: How Pot Stops Pain

So, how does pot stop pain? Truth be told, it might not, according to science. There are conflicting studies to date, some finding that it helps with pain while others discover that it intensifies it. It seems that medical marijuana affects each user differently, and due to federal regulations on cannabis, it’s been difficult for the healthcare industry in the U.S. to study the drug.

What are your thoughts or concerns about medical marijuana and physical therapy? Share with us in the comments below!

Author: Lenay Ruhl

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