UCSD Health Trial Studies Cannabis as Migraine Relief


Rodrigo Gutierrez

UC San Diego Health is currently studying cannabis as a treatment for those suffering from acute migraines. The ongoing trial, which began in November 2020, involves participants self-medicating with cannabis during four different instances of migraines to judge its effects on providing migraine relief.

The treatments for self-medication include three different forms of vaporized cannabis: THC, CBD, and a THC/CBD mix, as well as a placebo. Each form has a different percentage of potency with THC at five percent, CBD at twelve percent, and the THC/CBD mix containing a mix of five percent THC and twelve percent CBD.

Participants’ reactions to each cannabis sample are being measured in terms of its effects on pain freedom and relief, nausea at four different time intervals, and whether or not there is any experienced sensitivity to sound and light (otherwise known as photophobia and phonophobia).

The trial, which is the first of its kind and is funded by the nonprofit Migraine Research Foundation, is categorized as being a double-blind, randomized, crossover trial. This type of trial prevents any influence on the patients that can alter the conclusions as well as provide an unbiased result for the trial to study.

Dr. Nathaniel M. Schuster, a pain management specialist and headache neurologist at UCSD Health and the researcher behind the trial, told The UCSD Guardian that his goal with the trial is to eliminate any ambiguity related to providing treatment for migraine attacks.

“Many people with migraines self-medicate with cannabis products, but there is very limited scientific evidence for the efficacy of THC and/or CBD for migraine treatment and which symptoms of migraine (headache, nausea, light sensitivity, sound sensitivity) cannabinoids can effectively treat,” he said.

For people like trial participant Alice Knigge, self-medication may be the key to overcoming the pain of living with migraines. Knigge told NBC San Diego that her migraines have had a tremendous impact on her quality of life and have only worsened over the years.

“I would describe my migraines as a piercing pain,” Knigge said. “It feels like my brain is being squeezed. It causes extreme sensitivity to light and sound and horrible nausea. There have been times when I have been at a pain level of 6 or higher for approximately 25 days out of the month.”

Engaging with a trial involving a psychoactive drug such as cannabis may be controversial for some based on its changing legal status state-by-state.

Although the usage and possession of cannabis is still considered illegal due to its classification as a Schedule 1 drug by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, the state of California allows its use for both recreational and medicinal purposes. 

The duality of cannabis’ legality on both federal and state levels has made it prone to negative misconceptions by the public. Today, cannabis continues to be seen as a gateway drug; many still believe it leads users to seek out stronger drugs, although this is not typically the case.

While cannabis misconceptions still are present in today’s culture, there is a growing understanding of its medicinal benefits as well. 

The CBD component of cannabis is non-psychoactive and is associated with aiding anxiety, depression, and seizures without producing the “high.” However, strong evidence supporting this conclusion is not widely available.

THC, however, is the psychoactive component of cannabis that produces the “high” and is associated with aiding in pain and muscle spasticity. It is also recognized for its stronger likelihood to diminish pain and is approved by the Food and Drug Administration to be used as a medical treatment.

The results from this trial may pave the way for other similar trials to use cannabis and its various forms as methods to cure other debilitating diseases and pains. Dr. Schuster notes however that while he intends the trial to serve as a means to provide doctors with the ability to recommend possible solutions for migraine patients, the trial will not serve as a definitive answer.

“Our goal is to give doctors and patients scientific data to help guide them regarding the use of cannabis to treat migraine attacks,” Schuster said. “That said, this study won’t answer all questions about cannabis and migraines, there will still be other important questions to be studied in the future.”

The trial is ongoing and is currently still looking for interested people to participate. Interested parties must meet the eligibility criteria such as being between 21 and 65 years of age and experiencing migraines monthly. Additional criteria are available here.

Prior to enrolling, subjects cannot have tested positive for THC or barbiturates, cannot be pregnant or breastfeeding, and have a current or prior history with cannabis, alcohol, opioids, or amphetamines. Participants also should not drive a vehicle within four hours of self-medicating.

Those interested can contact Phrium Nguyen at [email protected] or by calling 858-822-3108.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.