History and Controversy of Marijuana for Migraines

Pluses and Minuses of Marijuana for Your Migraine Health

Have you tried marijuana for your migraine?. Cavan Images/Digital Vision/Getty Images

Have you ever smoked or eaten marijuana to prevent or treat a migraine attack? Their controversy  about the use of marijuana for headaches and other medical conditions. This debate is not only present in the medical community, but also in the legal world, as states and the federal government impart their complex regulations on the approval (or disapproval) of marijuana.

Let's review the history of marijuana in treating headaches.

Brief History of Marijuana

  • 1830s: Physician Dr. O'Shaughnessy wrote a paper about Indian hemp —marijuana — and its efficacy as a pain reliever and muscle relaxant for medical conditions like: tetanus, rabies, and cholera. He did not mention its use for headache therapy.
  • 1840s: English physician Dr. Clendinning became one of the first Western doctors to treat a patient with migraines with cannabis (marijuana).
  • 1850s: Marijuana was experimented with in preventing headaches.
  • 1890s: Marijuana was used to help treat those suffering from chronic daily headache and chronic migraine.
  • Early 1900s: These promising viewpoints regarding marijuana use took a different course. Marijuana developed a bad reputation, its use being linked to violent crimes and psychotic behavior.
  • 1937: Marijuana's negative connotation prompted the development of a high marijuana tax. Failure to pay resulted in large fines and jail.
  • Early 1970s: A marijuana comeback! There were very small survey studies done on marijuana as a pain reliever in headache disorders.

How Does Cannabis (Marijuana) Help with Migraines?

There are cannabinoid receptors located throughout the brain. Binding of these receptors modulates an individual's pain response through these mechanisms:

  • Stimulating the neurotransmitter dopamine release
  • Inhibiting the release of the neurotransmitters GABA, glutamate, acetylcholine, and noradrenaline

Cannabis also has an anti-oxidant effect, which may help in the rare case of migraine-induced stroke. It also has an anti-emetic or anti-nausea effect and helps alleviate anxiety. Finally, it reduces inflammation, similar to the mechanism of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), a first-line migraine therapy.

Potential Problems with Marijuana Use for Headache Disorders

There are reports of a rebound headache in individuals who stopped using marijuana after chronic, daily use. Marijuana also has been reported to trigger cluster headaches and can cause memory loss. Also, daily use can lead to a rare but serious syndrome known as reversible cerebral vasoconstriction syndrome (RCVS), which is associated with a headache.  In addition, there is a risk of addiction with marijuana.

Is Marijuana Legal?

Marijuana is classified under schedule 1 of the Federal Controlled Substances Act.

  This means that the federal government believes that marijuana has a high potential for abuse and is not safe for medical use. Please note that while medical marijuana is not recognized under federal law, it is recognized under some American states.

What Does This Mean for Me?

Marijuana's potential as a therapy for migraines is re-emerging now with its multiple state legalizations. In order to properly assess its efficacy, though, we need large randomized, double-blind studies. Right now, there are only very small study and anecdotes of its use in treating migraines.

If you are considering legal marijuana, please speak with your healthcare provider about the benefits and downsides. Be knowledgeable, safe, and do what is best for your body and head.


McGeeney BE. Cannabinoids and hallucinogens for headache. Headache. 2013 Mar;53(3):447-58.

DISCLAIMER: The information in this site is for educational purposes only. It should not be used as a substitute for personal care by a licensed physician. Please see your doctor for diagnosis and treatment of any concerning symptoms or medical condition.

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