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Science Opinion: Arizona can help end stigma against migraine sufferers and marijuana use
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Science Opinion: Arizona can help end stigma against migraine sufferers and marijuana use

A migraine sufferer and researcher advocates for migraines to be put on a list of acceptable MMJ conditions

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The following column is the opinion and analysis of the writer:

For the nearly 39 million Americans who suffer from debilitating migraines, stigma is nothing new. Despite the fact that they struggle with a chronic neurological disease that is the sixth-most disabling illness in the world and is more common than asthma, diabetes, and epilepsy combined, migraine patients are often marginalized.

Even in Arizona, a forward-thinking state that just voted to allow recreational cannabis use, migraine is still not included in the Arizona Department of Health Services qualifying conditions list for medical cannabis despite strong evidence that it is an effective migraine treatment. To both reduce the stigma and provide easier access to effective treatment options to patients of this disabling disease, Arizona should explicitly allow medical cannabis to be prescribed to treat migraine.

Migraines are an extremely subjective disease. Its underlying causes are still unknown, making them historically difficult to diagnose and address. Unlike other chronic conditions, no blood test can prove an individual suffers from migraines, and because it is an “invisible” disease, some wrongly believe that migraines are simply “just a headache.” But migraines are very much a serious, debilitating neurological disease that affects people differently.

Some patients experience episodic attacks, while others have chronic migraines that can last up to 72 hours. Attacks can be triggered by stress or inadequate sleep; but conversely, others experience headaches if they get too much sleep. Other patients can be sensitive to light, hormonal variations, changes in atmospheric pressure, certain foods or a combination of some or all of the above.

Given that migraines are such a personal experience, neurologists recommend that patients keep track of symptoms and triggers in a journal or on a mobile tracking app. Collecting this data helps identify particular triggers and detect patterns of migraine attacks. Patients can then make lifestyle changes to prevent headaches or render them less severe. Real-world data also helps doctors decide which treatment might be the most effective when it comes to managing patients’ pain.

Recent studies show cannabis can be an effective migraine treatment if taken before the onset of an attack, and also can reduce the pain and intensity if taken during a headache. A survey by the migraine tracking app Migraine Buddy found that 82% of migraineurs who tried cannabis said it helped ease their suffering. Yet, the same survey found that only 30% of migraine patients had even tried cannabis as a treatment.

If cannabis is so effective at preventing and treating migraine headaches, why have so few patients tried it?

The simple answer is access. Of the 33 states and the District of Columbia that have legalized cannabis for medicinal use, only five have expressly approved its use to treat migraines. Arizona is not one of them.

Arizona lists a number of specific medical conditions that cannabis can be prescribed for — including cancer, glaucoma, Crohn’s disease, and PTSD — and the Department of Health Services does allow doctors to prescribe cannabis for “a chronic or debilitating disease that causes severe and chronic pain.” Yet migraines are not explicitly listed the way other chronic conditions are, and the ADHS has reviewed — and denied — petitions to add migraines to the list of qualified conditions in the past.

However there is no doubt that migraines are a debilitating disease that causes severe and chronic pain. Nine in 10 migraine sufferers report they can’t work or function normally during an attack, and migraines are responsible for more than 157 million lost workdays and more than 1.2 million emergency room visits annually. All that being said, if you live in Arizona and suffer from migraines, accessing medical cannabis may require being treated by a physician who understands the complexities of this disease.

Migraines are difficult to diagnose and even more difficult to understand — even by the patients who suffer from them. But that shouldn’t prevent them from accessing effective treatments. Arizona health officials, as well as those in other states, should explicitly include migraine as a qualifying condition for medical cannabis use to give patients a safe and effective migraine treatment option and help remove the stigma from one of the world’s most debilitating yet misunderstood afflictions.

Francois Cadiou is a migraine sufferer and the founder and CEO of Healint, a leading provider of health-care technology and developer of migraine tracking app Migraine Buddy.

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