Research published by the Journal of Health Affairs reveals that chronic pain is the number one reason people turn to medical marijuana – with about 62% of patients reporting its benefits. In the science community, this isn’t too much of a surprise. Cannabis and its phytocannabinoids (chemical compounds found in the plant) have been observed to act on pain receptors and proven to be beneficial when consumed by humans.
But how does cannabis work on pain receptors and what are the best products for pain? Throughout this article, we’re going to take an in-depth look at cannabis and its ability to treat pain. At the end of the article, we invite you to ask further questions.
How Does Cannabis Effect Pain in the Body?
Within the cannabis plant are hundreds of phytocannabinoids – chemical compounds that interact with our body’s endocannabinoid system (ECS). The most common phytocannabinoids include tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD).
Of these phytocannabinoids, THC is the most notable for two reasons:
- It creates the psychoactivity (or the “high”) often associated with cannabis
- It directly interacts with pain receptors in the body
THC resembles endocannabinoid naturally found within our body and, in turn, is able to stimulate the brain’s cannabinoid receptors without any problem. This activates the brain’s reward system which is responsible for reducing levels of pain.
On the other hand, the mechanisms of CBD in the body aren’t entirely understood. What we do know is it does have an interaction with pain receptors causing both pain-relieving and anti-inflammatory effects.
Still, based on the research, it seems THC’s pain-relieving properties are more suitable for issues such as chronic pain. It’s likely that future research will seek out whether or not a combination of THC and CBD works best or if other cannabinoids, such as cannabigerol (CBG), are able to provide people with further pain relief.
What Does the Research Say?
Studies concerning chronic pain and cannabis have varying results due to a number of factors. The most important is not every study will look into the cannabis plant as a whole. Rather, they seek out how CBD-only or THC-only products have an effect on pain.
Furthermore, not every type of pain has yet been accounted for. In other words, while we’ve done research on nerve pain and inflammation, we don’t have nearly as much data on cannabis’s role in visceral pain.
Here is some of the current research concerning cannabis for pain:
- In a 2015 review, researchers found that most reports concerning cannabis (and phytocannabinoids) for chronic pain have shown positive results. The researchers believe we may be able to use cannabis to target specific types of pain, such as neuropathy (nerve pain).
- In a 2016 research paper, researchers sought out how much cannabis had an effect on cancer pain when compared to opioids. It was found that the use of cannabis reduced opioid use by 64% while also leading to fewer side effects and improved quality of life.
- One study sought out 17,000 cancer patients and found that cannabis use improved pain in 70% of participants.
- Another study revealed that cannabis use helped to decrease migraine episodes in those who experienced chronic migraines.
However, it should be noted that not all studies reveal cannabis has a positive effect. For example, an Australian study concluded that cannabis did not help reduce symptoms of pain nor did it lead to a reduction in opioid use.
Furthermore, it’s worth noting that it’s likely better to use the whole cannabis plant rather than a single cannabinoid. As many studies have shown, this provides users with the entourage effect which is likely to produce the most benefits.
What Type of Cannabis is Best for Pain?
When it comes to the cannabis industry, a lot of terminologies are thrown around that many consumers simply aren’t aware of. Not to mention, there are a vast number of different products on the market that come in varying strains, extractions, and cannabinoid profiles.
As of this time, no cannabis product is approved by the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) for pain. The only exception is a CBD-based drug known as Epidiolex which is prescribed for rare and severe forms of epilepsy.
With that in mind, there are no official standards when it comes to using cannabis products to treat pain. Instead, users are left to their own discretion and should base their judgment on the research currently available.
When shopping for cannabis products for pain, there are a few things you’ll want to keep in mind:
When you step into a cannabis dispensary, there are going to be a lot of different strains on offer. If you’re new to cannabis, this can seem overwhelming. However, all strains can be classified into three categories:
- Indica – Provide you with full-body effects, such as deep relaxation. Known for its sedating qualities.
- Sativa – Provide you with a “head high,” that may help in reducing stress and increasing creativity.
- Hybrid – A combination of both indica and sativa. Usually, you’ll find a dominant cannabis hybrid (i.e. a sativa-dominant strain).
Within each of these categories is a plethora of different strains, each of which will provide you with slightly varying effects. These slight variations are due to a number of factors, including the cannabinoid, terpene, flavonoid, and overall phytonutrient profile.
With that in mind, there are certain strains that are best for pain, such as White Widow, OG Kush, and Northern Lights. However, individual dispensaries usually don’t have every single strain on the hand. Instead, they’ll have a specific selection of strains – each of which is meant to handle specific ailment cannabis may help with.
With that in mind, your best bet is to go to a dispensary, to discuss your symptoms, and a professional will guide you on which strain is best to treat your condition.
2.) Product Type
Cannabis can be purchased in different product types. These not only provide different consumption methods but also varying effects. The most popular cannabis products include:
- Flower – The dried cannabis bud directly from the plant, meant to be smoked. If you’re unsure how to smoke cannabis, you can always opt for pre-rolls.
- Concentrates – Highly concentrated cannabinoids in wax form. These require a rig or device in order to consume.
- Vaping – Another way to inhale cannabis that is potentially safer. While you can opt for disposable vape pens, other vape products will require a device.
- Edibles – Baked goods that have cannabis within them, such as brownies, gummies, cookies, and other candies.
- Tinctures – A carrier oil with a cannabis extract (i.e. a CBD extract) is placed in them.
- Capsules – A pill that contains a concentration of a specific cannabinoid profile.
- Topicals – Lotions, salves, and creams that contain cannabis extract.
The type of product you choose ultimately comes down to preference. For example, if you’re looking for a product that produces immediate effects, you’ll want one you can inhale (such as flower, concentrates, or a vape). However, if you’re looking for longer-lasting effects, you’ll want a product you can digest (i.e. edibles, tinctures, capsules).
While topicals aren’t nearly as effective (as cannabinoids have trouble penetrating through the skin), they may be more ideal for pain that’s specific to certain regions. For example, people who struggle with muscle or joint pain tend to prefer topicals.
3.) Cannabinoid Profile
Every cannabis strain and product will have a specific cannabinoid profile. In most areas where cannabis is legal, it’s required by law that a brand informs you of the basic cannabinoid profile in a product.
For products like flower, you’ll find this in a percentage (i.e. this flower contains 20% THC). In other product types, this will likely be measured out in milligrams (mg).
As you first begin taking cannabis for pain, it’s going to take you some trial and error to figure out the right dosage amount. Furthermore, you may come to find that certain cannabinoid profiles are more beneficial for you.
For example, you may find a product with a 1:1 THC to CBD ratio more beneficial than a 2:1 THC to CBD ratio. Again, this ultimately comes down to preference. However, if you inform a dispensary of the exact cannabinoid profile you’re looking for, they usually have a product within that range.
Potential Side Effects of Cannabis
While cannabis doesn’t produce as many side effects as other pain medication, it can still cause adverse effects, including:
- Addiction (occurs in 9% of cannabis users)
- Breathing problems
- Dry mouth
- Impaired reaction times
- Loss of concentration
- Memory issues
- Mental health problems (i.e. psychosis)
- Nausea or vomiting
- Negative interactions with other medication
- Psychoactivity (or a “high”)
- Rapid heart rate
- Withdrawal symptoms
If you’re looking for a cannabis product with minimal side effects, we highly recommend cannabidiol (CBD) products, such as CBD oils, gummies, and capsules.
In accordance with research, cannabis has a lot of potentials to help treat various types of pain. However, more research is necessary before we properly understand how this all works.
In the meantime, since cannabis products remain unregulated by the FDA, the type of product and dosage that will most benefit you remains unclear. It’s going to take some experimenting before you’re able to conclude how much cannabis to take and of what product.
Still have questions concerning cannabis for pain? We invite you to ask them in the comments section below and we’ll be sure to answer in as promptly as we can.