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Pain Research and Management
Volume 6 (2001), Issue 2, Pages 74-79

Cannabinoids and Pain

J Michael Walker, Nicole M Strangman, and Susan M Huang

Departments of Psychology and Neuroscience, Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island, USA

Copyright © 2001 Hindawi Publishing Corporation. This is an open access article distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.


Cannabinoids have been used to treat pain for many centuries. However, only during the past several decades have rigorous scientific methods been applied to understand the mechanisms of cannabinoid action. Cannabinoid receptors were discovered in the late 1980s and have been found to mediate the effects of cannabinoids on the nervous system. Several endocannabinoids were subsequently identified. Many studies of cannabinoid analgesia in animals during the past century showed that cannabinoids block all types of pain studied. These effects were found to be due to the suppression of spinal and thalamic nociceptive neurons, independent of any actions on the motor systems. Spinal, supraspinal and peripheral sites of cannabinoid analgesia have been identified. Endocannabinoids are released upon electrical stimulation of the periaqueductal gray, and in response to inflammation in the extremities. These observations and others thus suggest that a natural function of cannabinoid receptors and their endogenous ligands is to regulate pain sensitivity. The therapeutic potential of cannabinoids remains an important topic for future investigations, with previous work suggesting utility in clinical studies of cancer and surgical pain. New modes of delivery and/or new compounds lacking the psychotropic properties of the standard cannabinoid ligands offer promise for cannabinoid therapeutics for pain.