The list of cannabis’ medical uses seems to grow longer every year as research becomes more widely available with the gradual easing of legal restrictions. But despite each new advancement and potential application for another condition, the most widely endorsed condition in the medical community is for the treatment of pain. (Read the recent report published by the federally funded National Academies of Sciences Engineering and Medicine.)
For individuals coping with chronic pain conditions, oral administration (smoking, vaping, tinctures, etc.) is the most popular intake method. However, their therapeutic efficacy in mitigating certain kinds of pain, topicals are now becoming increasingly popular.
Different Kinds of Pain
Now, before we get into how you can use cannabis topicals to manage pain, it’s important to make distinctions between the various types of pain.
Nociceptive Pain is normal pain caused by tissue damage of some sort. This could a broken toe, a burn, or even inflammation. The muscle soreness from a hard workout or from sitting at an ergonomically disastrous desk for hours on end are both common experiences of nociceptive pain caused by tissue damage. Rheumatoid arthritis, for example, is a prime example of inflammatory pain.
Neuropathic Pain is pain arising from the nervous system itself. This pain is characterized by stabbing, burning, tingling, or electrical quality. It is much harder to treat as nerves generally don’t heal very easily and are often difficult to get to.
How Cannabis Treats Pain
Cannabis has a couple of pathways for mitigating pain, and, interestingly, it works on both neuropathic and nociceptive pain.
For starters, CBD, and several other cannabinoids and terpenes found in cannabis are powerful anti-inflammatories. Many experiences of pain in the body are linked to inflammation, so by reducing inflammation cannabis is not just treating the pain, but the source of the pain itself.
One of the most interesting and powerful means by which it can treat pain is via the CB2 receptor, which is distributed throughout the entire body as well as in areas of the brain that process pain, indicating it may be able to attenuate pain both locally and centrally. And CBD is the primary cannabinoid for stimulating the CB2 receptor.
Research shows that stimulating the CB2 receptor produces analgesic effects in inflammatory, neuropathic, and bone cancer pain.
Cannabis Topicals For Pain Management
What makes topicals so valuable is that they do not enter the bloodstream. They can only affect the area of application. So while topicals may not be acting on the central mechanisms of pain perception in the brain, they only affect what you specifically target.
Practically speaking, this means that regardless of THC content, topicals will never get you intoxicated or incapacitated. For some, that may be disappointing, but for those only looking for pain relief, it is a godsend. (The absence of psychoactivity makes topicals an ideal choice for elderly populations. And, in fact, they are very popular among seniors.)
Choosing the Right Cannabis Topical For You
As with any health products, each person will inevitably have their own preferences. If your pain is inflammatory in nature, you might want to consider looking for something higher in CBD and THC-a, an inactive form THC that has synergistic anti-inflammatory properties. In cases of peripheral neuropathy, more of a 1:1 balance of THC to CBD may be more effective.
Salves with whole plant extracts that retain beneficial terpenes can also offer a somewhat different effect, mediated by the entourage effect.
Leafly’s topical product review page provides an unbiased source of other people’s experiences with various products to deal with different conditions, or come on down and talk to one of our knowledgeable budtenders to help you find just the right one for your needs.