Medical Marijuana: A Possible Treatment for Menstrual Cramps?
Andrea Chisolm, MD, is a board-certified OB/GYN who has taught at both Tufts University School of Medicine and Harvard Medical School.
Jessica Shepherd, MD, is a board-certified women’s health expert and nationally-recognized speaker addressing physical, sexual, and emotional health.
Medical marijuana has proven to have some significant medical benefits, most especially pain control. Although it isn’t strong enough to treat severe pain (such as bone fractures or post-surgical pain), it can be effective in relieving different types of chronic pain in many people.
Practitioners of alternative medicine will frequently include menstrual cramps as one of the conditions that medical marijuana can help treat. Insofar as it has been reported to help relieve symptoms of endometriosis and interstitial cystitis, it would seem reasonable to assume that marijuana can help treat the cyclical cramps and pelvic pain that can occur with menstruation.
Mechanism of Action
Marijuana (Cannabis sativa) contains more than 100 different compounds called cannabinoids, some of which have psychoactive properties. These compounds are easily absorbed when inhaled or eaten and can cross the blood-brain barrier to act directly on the brain.
The body is populated with a vast quantity of cannabinoid receptors, called CB1 and CB2, found mainly in the central nervous system but also in the lungs, liver, kidneys, and joints. These are the same receptors that naturally-occurring compounds, called endocannabinoids, attach to.
Endocannabinoids, part of the body’s endocannabinoid system, are believed to play an important role in regulating pain and inflammation. The ability of cannabinoids to attach to these receptors suggests that they may exert similar activity.
The two most recognized cannabinoids in marijuana are:
- Delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), which is primarily responsible for marijuana’s psychoactive “high”
- Cannabidiol (CBD), which does not cause a “high”
While THC and CBD are thought to have anti-inflammatory and analgesic (pain-relieving) properties, how they do so differs from other anti-inflammatory or analgesic agents.
What the Evidence Says
Not surprisingly, there is a lack of quality research regarding the benefits of medical marijuana in treating menstrual pain. Even so, cannabis has a long history of use in gynecology. Back in the late-19th century, Sir John Russell Reynolds, Queen Victoria’s personal physician, was said to prescribe hemp tincture to relieve the monarch’s painful menstrual cramps.
How marijuana is meant to achieve the relief remains unclear. At its heart, menstrual cramps are triggered by the release of inflammatory compounds, called prostaglandins, during menstruation. Women who produce are excessive amounts of prostaglandins are more likely to experience severe cramps.
Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) commonly used to treat menstrual cramps—like Advil (ibuprofen) and Celebrex (celecoxib)—block the production of prostaglandins by binding to COX receptors in the brain and other tissues.
By contrast, cannabinoids like THC and CBD exert no activity on COX receptors. and, therefore, have no influence on the production of prostaglandins. Rather, they stimulate the release of the “feel-good” hormone dopamine in the brain (where CB1 resides in high density) while reducing inflammation in the nerves and joints (where CB2 resides in high density).
This suggests that THC and CBD are most beneficial in treating chronic neuropathic pain and inflammatory joint disorders like rheumatoid arthritis. Even so, a 2018 review from the University of Alberta suggests that the benefits may be small.
Because THC and CBD have no effect on prostaglandin production—the compound responsible for menstrual cramps—it is unclear how they are meant to relieve menstrual pain and inflammation.
With that said, it is possible that THC induces euphoria than can reduce the perception of pain. By contrast, CBD’s effect on menstrual cramps remains unknown and largely unsubstantiated.
Safety of Medical Marijuana
At this point, we don’t really know how safe medical marijuana use. Although many people presume it to be safe, the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA) warns that the long-term consequences of marijuana use are still unknown.
Moreover, CBD oils, extracts, and tinctures popularly sold as alternative therapies sometimes contain unknown ingredients, and it is often difficult to know if the doses list on the product label are accurate.
Based on current advisement from the NIDA, medical marijuana in its inhaled form should not be used in people who:
- Are under 25 years of age
- Have a personal or strong family history of psychosis
- Have a current or past cannabis use disorder
- Have a current substance abuse disorder
- Have heart or lung disease
- Are pregnant or planning a pregnancy
Because there is little evidence about the safety of marijuana in pregnancy, it is best to avoid the drug if you are of reproductive age or use a proven form of birth control.
Though marijuana has not been shown to be cause birth defects, the presence of cannabinoid receptors in the fetal brain suggests that marijuana may impact a child’s cognitive and behavioral development in later years.
There is also evidence that marijuana use during pregnancy may increase the risk of pregnancy loss due to the overstimulation of cannabinoid receptors in the lining of the uterus.
A Word From Verywell
At present, there is no compelling evidence to support the use of medical marijuana in treating menstrual cramps. However robust the testimonials or anecdotal evidence may be, they lack any clear explanation of how the drug is meant to work. Do not be swayed by manufacturer claims that may or may not be true.
If you have severe, recurrent menstrual cramps that do not respond to conservative treatment, talks to your gynecologist about hormonal therapies or surgical options (like endometrial ablation or hysterectomy) that may help.
Heard the buzz about medical marijuana and menstrual cramps? Learn more about what we know and what we don't know about this controversial therapy.