A guide on medical cannabis for the treatment of migraines

A guide on medical cannabis for the treatment of migraines


Kerry is an experienced author specialising in content and business writing for health and cannabis industries, with expertise in social equity plans, licensing applications, and marketing materials.

Migraines are a common neurological condition that is characterized by a severe headache (often on one side), sensitivity to light and sound, and fatigue. Over 6 million people in the UK suffer from migraines. There are over 190,000 migraine attacks per day in the UK, so it is easy to imagine how much disruption to home and work life this disorder causes.

They can be unpredictable and debilitating, whether they occur daily or occasionally. On top of the excruciating pain, other secondary sensations during a migraine attack can distort vision, make even the slightest sounds almost unbearable, and cause a person to feel nauseous to the point of vomiting. Migraines can last minutes, hours, or even (in rarer cases) days.

Sufferers typically have some level of anxiety accompanying the main symptoms, since they never know when an attack might occur. Everyday triggers that include disturbed sleeping patterns, lighting, sounds, smells, climate factors, and stress might spark a severe attack. When people discuss migraines, they are usually also referring to a broad range of mental and physical challenges that come along with the headache. 

While the exact mechanisms behind what happens in the brain during a migraine remain somewhat unknown, researchers believe that they are often caused by abnormal brain activity that impacts chemicals, nerve signals, and blood vessels in the brain. A huge release of chemicals inside the brain leads to heavy inflammation and oversensitivity.  

‘Aura’ is the term used in medical settings to describe the lead up symptoms or signs that may precede migraine attacks. These can include seeing ‘zigzagged’ vision or light flashes, ringing in the ears, or a range of other sensory disturbances. Neurologists believe genetics play a key role in the origins of migraine disorder, but temperature, diet, stress and other factors determine the onset, frequency, and intensity of migraine activity. Current research is looking into the diverse reasons that might contribute to migraine.

Migraine can manifest in different ways:

  • Some patients (around 20%) have a migraine with an aura right before a migraine begins.
  • More patients (around 80%) will experience a migraine without aura. There is no warning and the pain can set in quickly.
  • Some patients experience migraine auras without a headache. It is also called a silent migraine, because a person might experience an aura or other migraine symptoms, but a headache (thankfully) does not follow.

An aura usually happens about an hour before other symptoms and specifically headache pain start. Auras are different for each patient; they vary in visual perception, auditory and other sensations. For some patients, the warning comes with enough time for the person to anticipate the timing of the full onset of migraine pain and find a comfortable place to manage the migraine activity and minimize additional triggers.

Some patients experience ‘the prodrome stage’ of symptoms hours, or even days, before a migraine occurs. This stage can involve the sufferer battling against mood swings, irritability, anxiety, food cravings, and they yawn excessively.

How does medicinal cannabis stack up as a potential treatment option?

Medical cannabis therapy may well be a viable option for many migraine patients. For sufferers who have tried a range of the conventional medication options available, medical cannabis may be a last resort for potential relief. Medicinal cannabis has been shown to offer an extremely favourable safety profile, and the current and ongoing research is pointing to it being a potentially effective treatment option for a range of health concerns, migraines included.

The science behind migraines and cannabis

Emerging research has revealed some fascinating, and promising, findings regarding migraine pain and medical cannabis. Many studies are highlighting the potential effectiveness of cannabis to address pain perception, inflammation, and anxiety, among a list of other issues. Medical cannabis has been shown to have the potential to reduce nausea, migraine intensity, and migraine frequency.

But how does cannabis interact with humans, and how does it potentially offer relief from the heavy burden of migraines?

The endocannabinoid system and its role in pain management

The endocannabinoid system (ECS) involves receptors (CB1 and CB2), signalling molecules that interact with these receptors (endocannabinoids) and metabolic enzymes that break down the endocannabinoids once their role has been completed. 

Although the ECS was only first discovered in the late 80s, it is now thought to be a hugely important part of human physiology. It is the largest regulatory system in all mammals, and research suggests that the ECS plays a vital role in maintaining homeostasis (balance) within the human body.

The ECS, and the ability to modulate its responses, may be particularly significant for migraine patients. We now know that the ECS can play a key role in influencing pain perception, and inflammation, among a wide range of other key functions.

THC and CBD, the two cannabinoids produced in the largest quantities in cannabis plants,  also have the ability to interact with the endocannabinoid system. While medical researchers are still looking to uncover the complete explanation behind how each phytocannabinoid (cannabinoids produced by cannabis, and other plants) interact with the human body, some of the processes have been discovered. 

Although both THC and CBD have been shown to bind with CB1, THC does so in a much stronger way. CB1 receptors are found mostly in the central nervous system, on nerve cells in the brain, spinal cord. But, they are also found in some peripheral organs and tissues such as the spleen, white blood cells, endocrine gland, and parts of the reproductive, urinary and gastrointestinal tracts. THC may also interact with other regulatory systems, and so may CBD. CBD has also been shown to potentially reduce the rate at which the metabolic enzymes break down our own endocannabinoids.

So, without further ado, lets dive into how medicinal cannabis is showing promise in the reduction and even prevention of migraines.

Research into the effectiveness of medicinal cannabis for migraine management

A recent review article, titled “Medical Cannabis for the Treatment of Migraine in Adults: A Review of the Evidence” looked at a total of 12 publications involving 1,980 participants. The results were pretty clear, and overwhelmingly positive. 

The first point that jumps off the page is that the review found that medicinal cannabis was 51% more effective in reducing migraines than non-cannabis products. The study also found that cannabis significantly decreased nausea and vomiting associated with migraine episodes after 6 months of administration. It also concluded that, while more research was needed before any definitive claims can be made, “there is promising evidence that MC may have a beneficial effect on the onset and duration of migraine headaches in adults”

Another paper, the Short and Long-Term Effects of Cannabis on Headache and Migraineaimed to determine if inhalation of medicinal cannabis decreases headache and migraine ratings. Again, the results were extremely promising. For both regular headaches and migraines, and across a large data sample, cannabis administration reduced self-reported headache and migraine strength by around 50%.

Medical Cannabis, Headaches, and Migraines: A Review of the Current Literature” is another large scale review that we can draw interesting data from. It found that there were positive effects in both the short and long term for migraine sufferers when medical cannabis was administered. The therapeutic effects offered by cannabis “alleviated migraines in all of the studies reviewed”

Now, with all of that said, the field of medicinal cannabis research is still in the early stages, thanks to the almost century long prohibition that is thankfully dissolving in many parts of the world right now. While all of the above research definitely points to the overwhelming potential of medicinal cannabis being a worthy addition to any migraine treatment plan, it should not be viewed as a standalone treatment option.

Does medicinal cannabis come with any risks or side effects?

As with any therapeutic option, there is of course some risk involved with the application of medicinal cannabis. But, research studies continue to highlight the safety of cannabis. Although there is always the risk of an adverse event with any substance, cannabis generally has a high safety profile.

No two patients will react exactly the same to medical cannabis. Some may feel no side effects whatsoever, while others may be extremely sensitive to certain components of medicinal cannabis.  

Some of the more common side effects include:

  • Lethargy
  • Red eyes
  • Increase appetite
  • Increased heart rate
  • Difficulty with problem-solving
  • Impaired memory

Some patients may feel and increase in anxious, or even paranoid, thoughts. This is most often associated with larger than prescribed dose sizes, but it is important to be aware of this possibility. 

Cannabis, and the way it is metabolised, can also bring forth negative interactions with other medications. 

This only highlights the importance of discussing your current medications and potential interactions with your GP and other medical professionals. Moderate medical cannabis use is considered generally safe for many patients, but it is always best to consider all risks.

How can medical cannabis be taken, and which delivery method is best for migraine sufferers?

Medical cannabis can be administered in many ways. Some of the legal modes of delivery in the UK include inhalation, edibles, and tinctures. Every administration method comes with its own set of pros and cons, and this is something that needs to be discussed with your prescribing physician before treatment begins

When it comes to migraine mitigation, there are two ways that may be most helpful.

Migraines may be prevented, or at least the severity reduced, with consistent and daily dosing. In this case, using a cannabis oil, or ingesting edibles might be the way forward. They both offer ease of administration, and can be dosed to specific levels to help the patient receive a consistent level of cannabinoids over a long period.

If medicinal cannabis is being administered as a stop-gap when the symptoms of a migraine appear, then it may be beneficial to discuss both tinctures and inhalation. Vaporised medicinal cannabis and sublingually applied tinctures offer a rapid onset of effects, and may be able to ease the length and severity of migraines in the short term.

Again, these are all things that need to be discussed with your doctor. Seeking the advice of a doctor that is experienced in prescribing medicinal cannabis for migraines will mean that you get the best advice in terms of route of administration, and dose sizing. 


While medicinal cannabis therapy is still in its infancy, the currently available research is certainly pointing towards the fact that it very well could be an effective and potent addition to any migraine treatment plan. With its well-documented safety profile, the relative ease of administration, and the fact that it is now fully legal in terms of prescription here in the UK, it’s certainly worth discussing with your doctor if you are looking to find some relief.

If you would like to learn more about the potential of medicinal cannabis in relieving or reducing migraines, we are here to help. Releaf offers access to a team of dedicated doctors who are experienced in prescribing medicinal cannabis for a wide range of health concerns. Contact us today to learn more.

Releaf understands the importance of medical cannabis in treating various medical conditions. With our tailored monthly packages, specialist consultations for medical cannabis, and a unique medical cannabis card for protection, you can access the treatment you need without worrying about the stigma.

It is important to seek medical advice before starting any new treatments. The patient advisors at Releaf are available to provide expert advice and support. Alternatively, click here to book a consultation with one of our specialist doctors.

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