Context: With increased use of cannabis-based products by the public for both recreational and medical use, sports medicine clinicians should be informed of historical context, current legal considerations, and existing evidence with regard to efficacy, safety, and risks in the athletic community.
Evidence acquisition: A review of ClinicalTrials.gov, MEDLINE, and CINAHL from 2015 to present was conducted with emphasis on the most recent literature using search terms, cannabis, nabiximols, cannabinoids, pain management, THC, CBD, and marijuana. Bibliographies based on original search were utilized to pursue further literature search.
Study design: Clinical review.
Level of evidence: Level 3.
Results: At present, limited high-quality studies exist for use of cannabinoids for acute pain, chronic pain, or concussion. None of the trials involving cannabinoids included the athletic population. Thus, results from this clinical review are extrapolated to conditions of the sports medicine population. For acute pain, 2 small-randomized double-blinded crossover trials concluded no immediate effect of cannabinoid therapy. More robust evidence exists for treatment of chronic pain conditions through meta-analysis and systemic reviews. Cannabinoid therapy exhibits moderate efficacy as a treatment for some chronic pain conditions. Investigations included a broad spectrum of chronic pain conditions, including neuropathic, musculoskeletal, inflammatory, and central pain conditions, and reveal reduction in pain and improvement of quality of life with limited adverse effects. For concussion, evidence is based on preclinical in vitro and animal models revealing possible neuroprotective effects as well as 2 clinical studies involving the presence of cannabinoids for concussion (some sports-related), but there are no high-quality trials evaluating efficacy for treatment with cannabinoids at this time.
Conclusion: Although various biochemical explanations exist on the use of cannabinoid therapy through modulation of the endocannabinoid system for several medical issues affecting athletes, recommendations from clinicians must be extrapolated from a majority of research done in the nonathletic population. Lack of strong-quality clinical evidence, coupled with inconsistent federal and state law as well as purity issues with cannabis-based products, make it difficult for the sports medicine clinician to widely recommend cannabinoid therapeutics at present. Future larger, higher quality clinical research studies with standardized pure extracts will better guide appropriate medical use going forward. At present, evidence for a multitude of therapeutic applications is emerging for cannabinoid treatment approaches. With emphasis placed on patient-centered clinical decisions, cannabinoids hold promise of treatment for athletes with chronic pain conditions. Clinicians who treat the athletic community must consider legal and ethical issues when discussing and recommending the use of cannabinoids, with acknowledgment of inconsistencies in purity of various formulations and concerns of drug testing.
Keywords: CBD, THC, cannabinoids, cannabis, endocannabinoid system, medical marijuana