Cannabis-based medicines and medical cannabis for adults with cancer pain

Winfried Häuser, Patrick Welsch, Lukas Radbruch, Emma Fisher, Rae F Bell, Andrew Moore

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Abstract

Background: Pain is a common symptom in people with cancer; 30% to 50% of people with cancer will experience moderate‐to‐severe pain. This can have a major negative impact on their quality of life. Opioid (morphine‐like) medications are commonly used to treat moderate or severe cancer pain, and are recommended for this purpose in the World Health Organization (WHO) pain treatment ladder. Pain is not sufficiently relieved by opioid medications in 10% to 15% of people with cancer. In people with insufficient relief of cancer pain, new analgesics are needed to effectively and safely supplement or replace opioids.

Objectives: To evaluate the benefits and harms of cannabis‐based medicines, including medical cannabis, for treating pain and other symptoms in adults with cancer compared to placebo or any other established analgesic for cancer pain.

Search methods: We used standard, extensive Cochrane search methods. The latest search date was 26 January 2023.

Selection criteria: We selected double‐blind randomised, controlled trials (RCT) of medical cannabis, plant‐derived and synthetic cannabis‐based medicines against placebo or any other active treatment for cancer pain in adults, with any treatment duration and at least 10 participants per treatment arm.

Data collection and analysis: We used standard Cochrane methods. The primary outcomes were 1. proportions of participants reporting no worse than mild pain; 2. Patient Global Impression of Change (PGIC) of much improved or very much improved and 3. withdrawals due to adverse events. Secondary outcomes were 4. number of participants who reported pain relief of 30% or greater and overall opioid use reduced or stable; 5. number of participants who reported pain relief of 30% or greater, or 50% or greater; 6. pain intensity; 7. sleep problems; 8. depression and anxiety; 9. daily maintenance and breakthrough opioid dosage; 10. dropouts due to lack of efficacy; 11. all central nervous system adverse events. We used GRADE to assess certainty of evidence for each outcome.

Main results: We identified 14 studies involving 1823 participants. No study assessed the proportions of participants reporting no worse than mild pain on treatment by 14 days after start of treatment.

We found five RCTs assessing oromucosal nabiximols (tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD)) or THC alone involving 1539 participants with moderate or severe pain despite opioid therapy. The double‐blind periods of the RCTs ranged between two and five weeks. Four studies with a parallel design and 1333 participants were available for meta‐analysis.

There was moderate‐certainty evidence that there was no clinically relevant benefit for proportions of PGIC much or very much improved (risk difference (RD) 0.06, 95% confidence interval (CI) 0.01 to 0.12; number needed to treat for an additional beneficial outcome (NNTB) 16, 95% CI 8 to 100). There was moderate‐certainty evidence for no clinically relevant difference in the proportion of withdrawals due to adverse events (RD 0.04, 95% CI 0 to 0.08; number needed to treat for an additional harmful outcome (NNTH) 25, 95% CI 16 to endless). There was moderate‐certainty evidence for no difference between nabiximols or THC and placebo in the frequency of serious adverse events (RD 0.02, 95% CI −0.03 to 0.07). There was moderate‐certainty evidence that nabiximols and THC used as add‐on treatment for opioid‐refractory cancer pain did not differ from placebo in reducing mean pain intensity (standardised mean difference (SMD) −0.19, 95% CI −0.40 to 0.02).

There was low‐certainty evidence that a synthetic THC analogue (nabilone) delivered over eight weeks was not superior to placebo in reducing pain associated with chemotherapy or radiochemotherapy in people with head and neck cancer and non‐small cell lung cancer (2 studies, 89 participants, qualitative analysis). Analyses of tolerability and safety were not possible for these studies.

There was low‐certainty evidence that synthetic THC analogues were superior to placebo (SMD −0.98, 95% CI −1.36 to −0.60), but not superior to low‐dose codeine (SMD 0.03, 95% CI −0.25 to 0.32; 5 single‐dose trials; 126 participants) in reducing moderate‐to‐severe cancer pain after cessation of previous analgesic treatment for three to four and a half hours (2 single‐dose trials; 66 participants). Analyses of tolerability and safety were not possible for these studies.

There was low‐certainty evidence that CBD oil did not add value to specialist palliative care alone in the reduction of pain intensity in people with advanced cancer. There was no difference in the number of dropouts due to adverse events and serious adverse events (1 study, 144 participants, qualitative analysis).

We found no studies using herbal cannabis.

Authors' conclusions: There is moderate‐certainty evidence that oromucosal nabiximols and THC are ineffective in relieving moderate‐to‐severe opioid‐refractory cancer pain. There is low‐certainty evidence that nabilone is ineffective in reducing pain associated with (radio‐) chemotherapy in people with head and neck cancer and non‐small cell lung cancer. There is low‐certainty evidence that a single dose of synthetic THC analogues is not superior to a single low‐dose morphine equivalent in reducing moderate‐to‐severe cancer pain. There is low‐certainty evidence that CBD does not add value to specialist palliative care alone in the reduction of pain in people with advanced cancer.
Original languageEnglish
Article numberCD014915
Number of pages87
JournalCochrane Database of Systematic Reviews
Volume2023
Issue number6
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 5 Jun 2023

Bibliographical note

Cochrane Review Group funding acknowledgement: this project was funded by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) via Cochrane Infrastructure funding to Cochrane PaPaS. The views expressed are those of the review author(s) and not necessarily those of the NIHR or the Department of Health and Social Care.

Data made available in report

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Pharmacology (medical)

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