Kratom and Chronic Pain

kratomEvery once in a while the herbal supplement kratom makes the news. Last November the FDA decided to classify kratom as a schedule 1 drug like heroin or marijuana, but after some opportune lobbying, the decision was put on hold. It is a substance that has been around for hundreds of years, mainly in Southeast Asia, and what it is and what it does is still poorly understood. Recently, some have claimed that it has the potential to be helpful in managing pain and opioid withdrawal.

The Truth About Kratom

Kratom is an herbal substance derived from the leaves of a Southeast Asian tree of the Mitragyna species, which is an evergreen. The leaves are either chewed or used to make an extract. Traditionally, in Southeast Asian cultures it was used for wound healing, coughs, intestinal infections, and to relieve stress and enhance moods, especially for those in boring repetitive labors.

The effects of kratom are dose dependent. At a low dose it acts like a stimulant, and at moderate to high doses it can act like an opioid. Even at low doses it can cause problems like:

  • anxiety
  • agitation
  • nausea
  • loss of appetite

At high doses, especially on a frequent basis, serious side affects can occur similar to problems with opioids including hypertension, weight loss, constipation, and even seizures and psychosis. Sudden stopping of high dose kratom can mimic withdrawal from opioids. The full pharmacology has been studied only in animals.

Kratom was first reported as an opium substitute in Malaysia and Thailand in the early 1800’s. From the traditional use, it has now become an herbal substitute for opioids for either managing pain or for withdrawals. In most of the world its sale and use are either controlled or prohibited. In the United States, the DEA was going to list it as a Schedule 1 drug like heroin, but due to legislative pressure they decided to leave it alone. In November of 2017, the FDA noted concern about sales and marketing since it can have serious side effects. Further, there have been no quality scientific studies on the effectiveness of kratom for either pain or prevention of withdrawal.

Substances like kratom should be considered very carefully before use. Like any herbal substance, this is not a pure drug and its potency can vary. The difference between an herbal substance and a medication like ibuprofen or aspirin is the dose and chemistry is fairly well understood with predictable effects. A dose of a herbal substance like kratom may be variable and the effect can be as toxic as regular use of opioids.

There may be beneficial properties to kratom, and further actual scientific studies would be useful. Perhaps a pure extract someday may lead to a very helpful compound to treat pain. However, until further understanding is determined, kratom use may be fraught with the same issues of any other opioid-type compound.

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Thomas Cohn, MD

Interventional pain doctor helping Minnesotans manage back, neck, foot, and other pain. Board-certified in physical medicine and rehabilitation with additional board-certification in pain management from the American Board of Anesthesiology (ABA), the American Board of Interventional Pain Physicians (ABIPP) and the American Board of Pain Medicine (ABPM).

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