For the nearly 39 million Americans who suffer from debilitating migraines, stigma is nothing new. Despite the fact 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 New Mexico, a forward-thinking state that was the first in America to pass legislation recognizing the medicinal value of marijuana, migraine is still not included in the state-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, New Mexico 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 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 patients keep track of symptoms and triggers in a journal or on a mobile tracking app. Collecting this data helps identify particular triggers and detects patterns of migraine attacks. Patients can then make lifestyle changes to prevent headaches or render them less severe.
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 percent of migraine sufferers who tried cannabis said it helped ease their pain. Yet the same survey found that only 30 percent 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. New Mexico is not one of them.
New Mexico lists 28 specific medical conditions that cannabis can be prescribed for, including cancer, autism, Crohn’s disease and post-traumatic stress disorder. The Medical Cannabis Program does allow doctors to prescribe cannabis for “severe chronic pain” but clearly states that “patients must be diagnosed with one of the approved qualifying conditions” to be prescribed cannabis.
There is no doubt migraines cause severe, 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 New Mexico 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. New Mexico health officials, as well as those in other states, should explicitly include migraines as a qualifying condition for medical cannabis use to give patients a safe and effective treatment option and help remove the stigma from one of the worlds’ most debilitating yet misunderstood afflictions.