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Systematic review of systematic reviews for medical cannabinoids

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Full Article: Systematic review of systematic reviews for medical cannabinoids – Pain, nausea and vomiting, spasticity, and harms


Objective To determine the effects of medical cannabinoids on pain, spasticity, and nausea and vomiting, and to identify adverse events.

Data sources MEDLINE, the Cochrane Database, and the references of included studies were searched.

Study selection Systematic reviews with 2 or more randomized controlled trials (RCTs) that focused on medical cannabinoids for pain, spasticity, or nausea and vomiting were included. For adverse events, any meta-analysis for the conditions listed or of adverse events of cannabinoids was included.

Synthesis From 1085 articles, 31 relevant systematic reviews were identified including 23 for pain, 5 for spasticity, 6 for nausea and vomiting, and 12 for adverse events. Meta-analysis of 15 RCTs found more patients taking cannabinoids attained at least a 30% pain reduction: risk ratio (RR) of 1.37 (95% CI 1.14 to 1.64), number needed to treat (NNT) of 11. Sensitivity analysis found study size and duration affected findings (subgroup differences, P ≤ .03), with larger and longer RCTs finding no benefit. Meta-analysis of 4 RCTs found a positive global impression of change in spasticity (RR = 1.45, 95% CI 1.08 to 1.95, NNT = 7). Other results were not consistently statistically significant, but when positive, a 30% or more improvement in spasticity had an NNT of 10. Meta-analysis of 7 RCTs for control of nausea and vomiting after chemotherapy found an RR of 3.60 (95% CI 2.55 to 5.09) with an NNT of 3. Adverse effects caused more patients to stop treatment (number needed to harm [NNH] of 8 to 22). Individual adverse events were very common, including dizziness (NNH = 5), sedation (NNH = 5), confusion (NNH = 15), and dissociation (NNH = 20). “Feeling high” was reported in 35% to 70% of users. The GRADE (Grading of Recommendations Assessment, Development and Evaluation) evaluation reduced evidence ratings of benefit to low or very low.

Conclusion There is reasonable evidence that cannabinoids improve nausea and vomiting after chemotherapy. They might improve spasticity (primarily in multiple sclerosis). There is some uncertainty about whether cannabinoids improve pain, but if they do, it is neuropathic pain and the benefit is likely small. Adverse effects are very common, meaning benefits would need to be considerable to warrant trials of therapy.