Menstruation can be uncomfortable as is, but add polycystic ovary syndrome on top, and you’re a 10 on the Richter scale for pain.
Polycystic ovary syndrome—or PCOS, as it’s commonly called—is an endocrine disorder categorized by enlarged ovaries peppered with small cysts. One in 10 people in the United States has PCOS, which means they’re dealing with intense cramps, bloating and pelvic pain, acne and excess hair growth—whether or not it’s that time of the month. In fact, people who have PCOS, which causes a hormonal imbalance, can go months without menstruating.
Most people with PCOS treat the symptoms with a combination of hormonal birth control and over-the-counter pain relievers. But those options can cause mild to severe side effects, and may not always give a person relief when they need it the most.
That’s where cannabis comes in, says Dr. Shivani Amin, a pain specialist and an active member of the Maryland Cannabis Task Force. “Some people believe the anti-inflammatory qualities can help with cramps and back pain” caused by the condition, she says.
And no wonder: The therapeutic benefits of cannabis have been well-documented. A 2015 clinical review published in JAMA shows that the cannabinoids present in weed— particularly the psychoactive chemical tetrahydrocannabinol, known as THC — can help relax muscles, relieve pain, reduce inflammation, suppress seizures, decrease nausea and lower anxiety. Emerging studies have also found that cannabidiol (CBD) — the other high volume chemical present in cannabis — acts like a painkiller, anxiety-reliever and anti-inflammatory without the intoxicating effects of THC.
“[Cannabis] is a natural alternative to the pharmaceutical drugs that have bad side effects,” says Amin. For example, she continues, marijuana won’t lead to ulcers. But with over-the-counter pain relievers, “there’s a chance of some stomach bleeding,” Amin adds.
There are many ways a person with PCOS can use cannabis to treat their symptoms beyond smoking or vaping, says Amin. They could use it as a topical cream, a patch, in oil form, as a bath soak or body balm, or as a cannabis edible. “There’s even a marijuana suppository” for hemorrhoids and pain, she adds.
But using cannabis to treat PCOS specifically—or menstrual pain more broadly—is still an underserved market. That’s because, Amin says, there is a dearth in published studies that explore how cannabis can provide menstruating people relief.
Without that scientific inquiry, she continues, marijuana products can’t be developed that specifically target the symptoms of PCOS. And that does a disservice to millions of people living with the endocrine disorder who have to shoulder its ripple effects, such as missing work or school because of intense pain.
“This topic is not researched really enough,” Amin says.
Annamarya Scaccia is an award-winning freelance journalist who reports on public health and social justice issues. Like any native New Yorker, she drinks too much coffee and has strong opinions about the Yankees. Follow her on Twitter at @annamarya_s.