Marijuana is a multi-talented plant, providing us with both euphoria and the relief of many symptoms, including pain. In fact, for most of its extremely long history, cannabis has been used recreationally, industrially, and medicinally in equal measures. The first documented use of cannabis for pain comes from the Chinese emperor Shen Neng in 2737 B.C., who prescribed it to treat illnesses such as gout, rheumatism, and even malaria. However, what is it that makes cannabis for pain relief an effective treatment?
Let’s find out.
How Cannabis Works
The secret behind using cannabis for pain lies in understanding its pathway and action through the brain. The first thing to know is that cannabis flower contains a unique group of chemicals called “cannabinoids”. You’ve probably heard of both THC and CBD. These are the top two cannabinoids found in marijuana, and they have differing effects.
What’s the same, however, is the way THC and CBD begin to work. Your brain has its own system of cannabinoid chemicals and receptors, called the endocannabinoid system (ECS). When cannabis isn’t present, your ECS is responsible for sustaining business as usual. Depending on where they reside in the brain, ECS receptors help regulate:
If there’s a deficiency or issue with your ECS, you’ll experience very unpleasant symptoms. Cannabis contains more than 85 kinds of cannabinoids, in proportions unique to different strains. These can help your ECS regulate itself, and that’s the cornerstone of using cannabis for pain.
THC or CBD?
Most people familiar with marijuana know there’s a difference between THC and CBD but may not know exactly what it is. The main experiential difference is that THC gets you high, and CBD doesn’t.
What most people don’t know is that THC is shown to have anti-inflammatory effects as well as providing a high.
A University of Illinois study demonstrated that in addition to its psychoactive effects, THC mirrors the body’s natural process of fatty acid conversion. Your body naturally processes omega-3 fatty acids "like those found in fish, eggs, and nuts” and turns them into cannabinoids that then trigger anti-inflammatory responses in the body.
Since inflammation and pain go hand in hand, this is one more critical piece of evidence that cannabis for pain is a viable option when inflammation is involved even if the strain has higher levels of THC.
CBD, of course, is better documented as a way to relieve pain. The first thing you’ll see when searching for evidence of CBD’s medical properties is likely to be the story of Charlotte’s Web.This high-CBD strain contains nearly no THC and was developed specifically to aid a young girl with devastating epilepsy.
The transformation in the young girl’s quality of life was immediate and sustained. She went from having daily, traumatic seizures, to having one or two in her sleep every month. It was clear that the CBD was interrupting ECS signals that triggered her seizures, and further research proved this to be true.
How to Use Cannabis for Pain
Cannabis can be used to treat pain in many forms. Medical-only cannabis users often prefer to consume marijuana in edible form. The cannabinoids from edibles are absorbed in the digestive tract, so their effects take longer to kick in and can last up to 8 hours.
On the flip side, using cannabis in a concentrated form means it will take effect almost immediately, with the effects wearing off around 3-4 hours later.
Of course, some folks just like to roll up an old-fashioned joint! No matter what form of cannabis you choose for pain relief, your main deciding factor will be whether you want pain relief on its own or if you want to experience the buzz that accompanies THC-heavy strains.
It’s also worth noting that many commercially available strains have been purposely bred to exhibit certain effects. Ask a budtender and you’re sure to receive some tailored recommendations based on the effects you desire. Experiment away!