A common complication of diabetes, diabetic neuropathy is damage to the nerves that results from sustaining high blood sugar levels for a long period of time. It can cause pain and numbness in the extremities as well as problems with the digestive system, blood vessels and heart.

Unfortunately, treatments for diabetic neuropathy remain limited even though experts understand the metabolic reasons for this disorder. Current treatments help to reduce some pain and control certain symptoms. However, the condition is progressive, meaning symptoms get increasingly worse over time. Doctors agree that the best treatment is to maintain strong control of blood glucose levels, keeping them well within a healthy range throughout the day.

For many diabetes patients, this is easier said than done. But new treatments are on the horizon.

Nabilone for neuropathy

Common treatments for neuropathy include analgesics, such as acetaminophen, NSAIDs and opioids like morphine. However, scientists have been looking at new ways to control pain, including synthetic THC (tetrahydrocannabinol—the principal psychoactive drug in cannabis).

Nabilone is a synthetic cannabinoid (imitation marijuana) that has shown promise in treating nausea and vomiting along with neuropathic pain. In a study from the University of Calgary, researchers compared Nabilone to a placebo (sugar pill) in patients with diabetic neuropathic pain.

Patients received daily oral doses of Nabilone or placebo in combination with their existing medications for a period of four weeks. A majority of the initial patients experienced pain relief greater than 30 percent during the study period. And a dose of 2.9 mg per day significantly reduced participants' pain as well as their anxiety levels, sleep and quality of life compared to placebo.

Is Nabilone available for use?

The FDA approved Nabilone in 1985 as a treatment for chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting. However, the drug has only been marketed in the United States since 2006. Although Nabilone is not indicated for chronic pain, meaning most insurance companies typically won’t cover it, the drug is still widely used as an adjunct therapy for management of neuropathy and fibromyalgia.

Side effects of Nabilone

Common side effects of Nabilone include drowsiness, a spinning sensation, dry mouth, a "high" feeling, lack of coordination, headache and difficulties in concentrating. Regular use of this medication over a long period of time or in high doses may cause withdrawal reactions, such as irritability, trouble sleeping, sweating, and diarrhea.