Hemp is ‘the next big thing’ in pain management as growth and research expand in Kentucky
To some it seems taboo. But a nationally renowned pain doctor says a four-letter word can ease aches and anxiety without the risk of addiction: H-E-M-P.
“It’s gonna be the next big thing,” said Dr. James Patrick Murphy, a former president of the Greater Louisville Medical Society who treats patients in Kentucky and Indiana.
Hemp won’t alleviate acute pain, Murphy said, but it can lessen more moderate pain — allowing some patients to reduce or stop taking addictive pain pills that fuel the heroin and opioid epidemic.
With Louisville losing an average of one person a day to drug overdoses, doctors and patients are scrambling to find safer ways to treat pain.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration hasn’t approved hemp products for use as medicine, and clinical trials on cannabinoids or CBD oil — extracted from the hemp flower —are pending. But Murphy and other doctors seethe oil as a promising option, and many people who are trying it for themselves say it works.
“People are coming in using this stuff,” Murphy said. “We have to learn about it.”
CBD oil has been credited with significantly reducing the severity of violent and potentially deadly epileptic seizures — especially in children.And hemp seeds are considered a “superfood,” rich in omegas and protein.
Yet the hemp plantis often confused and dismissed as a forbidden relative of marijuana.
“Cheers” actor Woody Harrelson grabbed national attention in June 1996 by planting four hemp seeds in Eastern Kentucky on a Lee County farm. His arrest was a stunt to highlight the difference between pot and hemp.
Both are the same plant species, Cannabis sativa. And they have the same pointy leafs and pungent scent. But hemp has a breadth of uses and a negligible amount of the mind-altering ingredient THC.
“Cars can run on hemp oil,” the actor wrote in a letter published in Courier Journal after his arrest. “Environmentally friendly detergents, plastics, paints, varnishes, cosmetics and textiles are already being made from it” in Europe.
Still, U.S. lawmakers would take nearly two decades longer to embrace it.
A federal law many dub the “2014 Farm Bill” cleared a path for its comeback.
Now Kentucky is among the nation’s top producers, trailing Colorado.
Brian Furnish, an eighth-generation tobacco farmer, was among the first in decades to legally plant hemp seeds in Kentucky soil. He grows and promotes hemp as an executive with Ananda Hemp, one of the commonwealth’s largest growers.
Furnish is not only a grower, he’s a consumer. He says a few drops of CBD oil ease his neck and back pain due to old football injuries and heavy lifting of feed sacks and other strenuous chores.
Now, he doesn’t work the farm without it.
Murphy is among the doctors who first learned about the potential benefits of hemp from their patients.
Curious, he did some research, reading about CBD oil and even testing it on himself for four days. Although he didn’t need it for pain, he verified it didn’t give him a buzz or any negative side effects.
He decided to recommend it to 200 patients.
About 90 percent of the 175 who tried CBD oil spray or pills reported benefits, such as fewer migraines and tension headaches and more tolerable leg and back pain and arthritis, he said. Others had more restful sleep and less anxiety.
But it’s not for everyone.
Murphy doesn’t recommend it to patients who are taking blood thinners or who have heart conditions.
And a small number of his patients opted to stop taking hemp after becoming dizzy. Others didn’t notice any relief from migraines or enough relief from severe pain.
Those who opted not to try hemp included an elderly patient whose husband wouldn’t let her try anything related to marijuana.
Dr. Bruce Nicholson, a Pennsylvania pain expert, also recommends hemp to many of his patients.
Dozens have reduced or stopped taking opioids, he said. Patients reported less trembling from neuropathy and relief from achy muscles. The doctor personally uses hemp several times a week, rubbing a cream on his achy joints.
“In the medical profession, we knew nothing about it,” said Nicholson, who began reading up on it about three years ago.
Nicholson estimates that as many as 80 percent of his patients suffering from chronic pain also face anxiety or depression. He said hemp can help that too.
“Now I recommend it every day to my patients,” he said.
Lisa Whitaker, 50, one of Murphy’s patients on disability for migraines and herniated discs, said CBD oil didn’t ease her severe headaches but did help her back pain.
It took four to six weeks before she noticed significant relief.
“This has been a lifesaver,” Whitaker said.