Cannabis vs Anti-Inflammatories
4 min readMay 30, 2017


In your research surrounding cannabis, you may have compared it to other substances. “Cannabis vs. opioids,” “cannabis vs. alcohol,” “Cannabis vs. sleeping pills,” and so on. But what about comparing cannabis to more innocuous substances, like ibuprofen (aka Advil, Nurofen, Motrin etc.) and other such non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)? The fact is, there are things in your medicine cabinet that could do you some real harm — things that you may not expect to do you harm otherwise.

Like aspirin, ibuprofen is a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) used to control pain, fever and inflammation. Ibuprofen is often used for migraines, painful periods and rheumatoid arthritis. Most NSAIDs are generally available without prescription, and are one of the most commonly-used classes of drugs in the world. Sometimes, NSAIDs like ibuprofen and aspirin are combined with caffeine in order to exponentiate the pain-killing effects. Unlike aspirin, however, ibuprofen has the advantage of a lowered risk of gastrointestinal bleeding.

Ibuprofen is generally considered one of the safer NSAIDs. Still, there are some pretty nasty side-effects like heart, kidney and liver failure, as well as an increased risk of heart attack or asthma at high doses. Other, less serious, side-effects include heartburn, rash and dizziness. As an anti-inflammatory, ibuprofen is one of the weaker NSAIDs, but stronger NSAIDs (e.g. mefenamic acid, indometacin) carry with them increased chances of organ failure.

Gastrointestinal bleeding is perhaps one of the most common complications caused by NSAID overdose, especially in those who suffer from disorders like Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis and other such gastrointestinal problems. The fact that issues like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) could be caused by an endocannabinoid deficiency, on top of the chance of developing gastrointestinal bleeding, suggests that cannabis may be a better medicine of choice than NSAIDs for many people.

NSAIDs are generally quite a “safe” drug, but there are still many deaths where NSAID overdose could be one of the direct causes. Usually, taking too many NSAIDs results in a lot of vomiting, dizziness and diarrhea, but for some it can be risky should they have health concerns like epilepsy, asthma or are taking lithium for bipolar disorder/depression.

According to this FDA document, approximately 103,000 people per year are hospitalized due to NSAID overdose. However, the number of deaths due to NSAID overdose are not huge considering the millions if not billions of ibuprofen tablets being distributed over the counter every year. Conservative figures suggest that around 3443 deaths per year are caused by gastrointestinal bleeding by NSAID overuse. Of this, there are probably no more than around 300 deaths attributable to ibuprofen itself. This study is from around the year 2000, though, and the numbers may be different nowadays.

Yet, some more shocking figures in the FDA document cited above suggest that deaths via NSAID overdose might be as high as 16,500 per year. This would put the yearly death toll of NSAID overdose higher than the yearly deaths caused by prescription opioid overdose! This document by Drug War Facts cites a 1997 study suggesting that NSAIDs account for 76,000 hospitalizations and 7,600 deaths. Interestingly, this document also details that there have been no deaths attributable to cannabis alone!

Though high numbers of death by overdose are unlikely considering the margin of safety of NSAIDs, there are still deaths caused by it. Also, as NSAIDs might not work for all types of pain, there could be many people taking it for no reason at all. Also, considering the ubiquity of substances that can interact with NSAIDs (like caffeine and acetaminophen (paracetamol)), on top of the fact that it is very easy to take too many ibuprofens without realizing it, a person could quite easily overdose on NSAIDs and not know until it’s too late.

Cannabis, by contrast, does not have this danger. Yes, there may be some euphoria associated with using cannabis for pain or inflammation, but the chances of overdosing and dying on cannabis are even lower than many everyday drugs that we do not even think twice about consuming!

Indeed, this cannabis-induced euphoria could even be said to be a positive not only for the pain-relieving qualities, but also because it tells the body when it’s had enough. You cannot overdose on THC — which is structurally similar to the naturally-occurring, “runner’s high”-causing neurotransmitter anandamide (an endocannabinoid) — because endocannabinoids engage in “retrograde signalling”. This means that feedback mechanisms in the body tell other neurotransmitters to “slow down” if they are firing too fast.

Though NSAIDs are generally quite safe in low doses, cannabis still has them beat in terms of safety, no matter at what dose! Whilst I don’t want to downplay the importance of NSAIDs entirely, as well as the fact that they prove immensely useful for millions the world over, but cannabis could be a new frontier in creating medications that are naturally-derived and much safer than many other medicines out there at the moment. In the next 50 years time, we could be seeing NSAIDs replaced entirely by ultra-safe, highly specific cannabis-made medications!

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