Cannabis has its roots as a medicine.

Humans have used cannabis oil for pain relief, and as a medicine for 12,000 years. Today, scientists are studying many potential benefits of the herb in laboratories around the world. Results for treating pain has been overwhelmingly positive. In a lot of this research, different types of pain respond best to different kinds of cannabis oil. The three most commonly studied are cannabis oil, which contains a significant concentration of THC within its full spectrum of cannabinoids; hemp oil which includes the full spectrum of cannabinoids with nonpsychoactive amounts of THC coupled with high levels of CBD; isolated CBD oil; and concentrations of specific ratios of THC to CBD, such as 1:1 or 2:1,  in an oil suspension. Studies consistently show that results vary depending on the type of cannabis oil being used. In this breakdown of the ways cannabis can help the pain, I’ve done my best to be specific about which oil was most helpful for each condition. 

Why Use CBD for Pain Relief? 

Using CBD oil for pain relief improves the condition afflicting 10% of Americans in multiple ways and helps more than one type, including low back pain, arthritis, post-surgical, cancer-related, headaches, and PMS. A survey of CBD users [over 54] found that half use the cannabinoid for chronic pain and inflammation. 78% of those surveyed were satisfied with the treatment, and 89% said they would recommend their family members or friends try CBD. Let’s take a look at the five most important features of CBD oil for pain relief.

Cannabis Helps Chronic Pain

Trials suggest certain types of chronic pain often benefit from cannabis therapy.6 Users can get almost complete relief from minor pain and discomfort, but there is a percentage who do not improve.7,8 Rarely do people seem to get much worse, and thankfully there is no associated withdrawal or addiction.6,8 Because not all pain is generated in the same way, cannabis isn’t always going to target the source of the problem, so it’s not realistic to expect it to be a cure-all. For instance, fibromyalgia has its roots in the brain’s processing of pain, whereas most back pain has its origins in mechanical issues with the joints in the back, hips, and spine. The methods to treat these conditions have to be different.9,10 Because medical marijuana is so safe to use, it can be a more conservative option when compared with highly addictive pain medications.

THC has psychoactive effects that can either help or hinder people dealing with psychological aspects to their pain regardless of if inflammation is actually reduced.11 The cannabinoid CBD, on the other hand, can be well tolerated by almost everyone. Most of the studies out there on pain have used cannabis with relatively high concentrations of THC and little to no cannabidiol (CBD).6, 7 

With CBD acting on different parts of the body and the brain, preliminary studies have shown CBD dominant cannabis oil to affect users quite differently than the THC heavy varieties. Just this year the DEA reclassified cannabidiol (CBD) from a schedule I to V substance, a reclassification giving it medicinal value and the legal opportunity for universities to begin conducting research. The studies so far do show that cannabis has positive findings in the treatment of multiple different types of pain:

  • Arthritis: Cannabis oil, especially the CBD-rich variety, does improve pain from arthritis. The cannabinoid Cannabidiol helped control the inflammation associated with pain from osteoarthritis in a 2017 study published in the journal Pain.12 Doctors are hopeful cannabinoids will have positive effects on rheumatoid arthritis as well, but we currently lack the research to support such theories.5 
  • Lower Back Pain: A study of lower back pain published this year in the Current Neurology and Neuroscience journal, found cannabis therapy “advantageous” as a treatment.14 Using cannabis oil might also help current users of pain medication take less of their current side-effect-ridden pills. Both CBD and cannabis oil may help relieve low back pain.
  • Post-Surgical Pain: All varieties of cannabis oil may aid in the treatment of post-surgical pain. Anecdotally, many surgical patients find a safer alternative to narcotic pain medication throughout their recovery substituting marijuana and its oil. Preliminary research suggests cannabinoids do have the ability to regulate certain kinds of pain.13 Cannabis not only seems to be an option as a standalone treatment, but it also appears to increase the efficacy of additional pain medication when taken together, creating what doctors have called an “Entourage Effect.” 
  • Headaches: All forms of cannabis oil may help headaches. In specific tests, THC-rich oils made some participants worse, but can also offer the most relief to others. CBD, on the other hand, hasn’t shown any negative side-effects.

Dr. Baron of the Cleveland Clinic Neurological Institute Headache Centers completed a “Review of Medicinal Marijuana, Cannabinoids, and Therapeutic Implications in Medicine and Headaches” which was published in 2015 in the journal Headache. He found that “the medicinal use of cannabis may have a therapeutic role for a multitude of diseases, particularly chronic pain disorders including a headache. Supporting literature suggests a role for medicinal cannabis and cannabinoids in several types of headache disorders including a migraine and cluster headache, although it is primarily limited to case-based, anecdotal, or laboratory-based scientific research.”15

The journal Current Neurology and Neuroscience Reports published Dr. Baron’s 2018 paper “Medicinal Properties of Cannabinoids, Terpenes, and Flavonoids in Cannabis, and Benefits in  Migraine, Headache, and Pain: An Update on Current Evidence and Cannabis Science.” The paper stated that cannabis consistently shows positive results as a treatment for headaches and migraines. The THC and CBD containing varieties both provide relief to sufferers.”11

Additional reviews have found cannabis preparations to reduce the severity of headache symptoms and increase the effectiveness of current standalone treatments.6-11,16-18

CBD Oil Works With the Body, Not Against It 

Most drugs, other cannabinoids included, bind to receptors in the body and create a directional action. Cannabidiol simply, and perhaps more profoundly, normalizes receptor function instead of binding to them. The receptors which CBD regulates are located all over the body as part of our endocannabinoid system. The endocannabinoid system maintains homeostasis in humans for processes including memory, immunity, appetite, energy, and emotional development. 

The National Institute of Health states, “the endocannabinoid system has been recently recognized as an important modulatory system in the function of the brain, endocrine, and immune tissues. It appears to play a very important regulatory role in the secretion of hormones related to reproductive functions and response to stress.”

Cannabidiol encourages the human body to heal using its own resources. Chair of the Department of Psychiatry in the School of Medicine at the University of California, San Diego Igor Grant says. “If some [bodily] system is overactive, the endocannabinoid system tends to quiet it down. Even in cases when the brain seems to be depressed, it’s a stabilizing system.” 

CBD Oil Reduces Inflammation at the Root of the Pain 

Swelling from a sprained ankle creates sensations of throbbing and aching. Injured nerves cause shooting sharp pain. Degenerative conditions like arthritis produce both aching and sharp discomfort in the joints involved. All of these are sources of inflammation that can sometimes persist long after a problem should have healed. CBD oil reduces inflammation, keeping the healing process in check.

Scientists have found CBD reduces the amount of pain-producing chemicals at the site of injury, including prostaglandin E2, lipid peroxide, and nitric oxide. In a study published in the November 10, 2006 issue of the European Journal of Pharmacology, cannabidiol reduced the excess inflammatory chemicals, without affecting the natural “protective” response to injuries.

A 2017 study published in the journal Pain found CBD helped control the inflammation associated with pain from chronic osteoarthritis. Doctors at the University of Kentucky discovered a cannabidiol gel rubbed into the skin around the knee improved arthritic knee joints by reducing inflammation in subjects. Even more impressive, cannabidiol reduced the formation of new arthritis. 

Cancer patients have used medical marijuana for decades to cope with nausea from chemotherapy. Researchers have found that CBD calms overexcited nerves in the digestive system. Sufferers of premenstrual syndrome report similar relief as well as an improvement in mood in surveys on consumer use. 

Cannabinoids Act on the Same Areas of the Brain That Are Affected by Migraines

Dr. Baron’s research saw promise in regulating migraines, writing “Cannabis contains an extensive number of pharmacological and biochemical compounds, of which only a minority are understood, so many potential therapeutic uses likely remain undiscovered. Cannabinoids appear to modulate and interact at many pathways inherent to a migraine, triptan mechanisms of action, and opiate pathways, suggesting potential synergistic or similar benefits.”11 Dr. Baron went on to say he expected to see drugs developed based on compounds found in cannabis. 

Migraine-focused studies have shown that cannabis reduces the frequency, not just the intensity of migraines.16 Scientists think the interaction with the endocannabinoid system will explain why cannabis therapy may help conditions like Migraines, Fibromyalgia, and Irritable Bowel Syndrome that involve the overactivity of the nervous system.17

Cannabis Can Reduce Pain Associated With Menstruation

Cannabis oil can offer relief to women with painful menstrual cycles. Scientists have found mechanisms by which cannabinoids in cannabis oil might help control the severity of symptoms during the menstrual cycle by way of the body’s own endocannabinoid system, reducing the contractions associated with cramps.19

Science Supports the Ability of Cannabis to Treat Insomnia

All forms of cannabis oil may improve sleeplessness.2,4 Experiments have demonstrated its ability to reprogram the cells responsible for our circadian rhythms, which explains why it has been found as a successful treatment for insomnia.20 

Cannabis’s Effect on Anxiety Gets Mixed Reviews

Cannabis has mixed results with anxiety. Some results are very positive. In a few cases, THC containing cannabis oil even makes anxiety worse, but as we know, not all cannabis oils are created equal, and CBD oil gives the best results in studies when it comes to combating anxiety.21,22,23

CBD Oil Reduces the Sensation of Pain 

CBD doesn’t only affect the site of painful injuries., but also the way the brain processes them. Pain tolerance is a real thing because the brain filters our physical experiences, whether they be pleasurable, painful, or otherwise, through a lens of all of our past emotions and experiences. Most people have a hard time believing that the pain you feel isn’t an accurate reflection of the injury, but a psychological response to the experience. 

The majority of pain is parts both physical and mental, and while CBD is a potent anti-inflammatory at the site of injury, it also helps sufferers deal with the hurt by assisting them in processing it neurologically. For example, one study in rats found that CBD injections reduced pain response to surgical incision. Those who received a dose of cannabidiol before the procedure experienced less pain than those who received the same incision without CBD.

Highly emotional people may tend to inflate their pain, though the experience may feel very real to them. More even-keel people seem to be able to tolerate greater discomfort before it bothers them, and this has no real bearing on the severity of the injury. Because CBD has a regulating effect on neurotransmitters in the brain, the modulating cannabinoid can help those experiencing psychologically driven-pain. 

A 2017 survey found four out of ten female cannabis consumers do so as a natural alternative to manage mood swings, discomfort during menstruation, menopause, and mental health conditions. Relief from premenstrual pain as well as cramps were also frequently cited reasons. Menstruation cycles are characterized by hormonal fluctuations that in turn affect mood, emotion, and thoughts so its no wonder women find relief using CBD. 

Cannabis May Be a Viable Treatment For Certain Types of Depression

While cannabis seems to ease depression in some suffers, THC-containing oils can complicate it for others.24,25,26 Most of the studies had only been performed using THC dominant cannabis, until the recent CBD-based research influx. Those focused on CBD oil instead of full-spectrum cannabis oil have been showing consistent promise for CBD as an antidepressant.22,23

Researchers found that an “Antidepressant-like Effect Induced by Cannabidiol Is Dependent on Brain Serotonin Levels.” Scientists believe it acts to modulate existing neurotransmitters including the mood-boosting serotonin. The researchers published their results in the U.S. National Library of Medicine’s Current Neurology and Neuroscience Reports in August 2018.27

Researchers just published further findings that CBD has a “rapid antidepressant effect” on users.28

CBD Oil Can Be Orally Ingested, Used as a Skin Cream or Vaporized

CBD oil can be effectively ingested in multiple ways, each offering its own distinct advantages. Vaporizing CBD oil provides a fast-acting, convenient method. The vapor passes through the lungs directly into the bloodstream.  High-quality vape pens can give a consistent dose in each drag, typically between 1-2 milligrams. Pens fit anywhere and won’t spill or spoil.

Creams get relief directly to an injured area as well as raise cannabidiol blood levels throughout the entire body. Topicals can be used to relieve pain and inflammation in sunburns, abrasions, strains, and sprains especially those infused with moisturizers.  Scientists used a topical CBD cream in the arthritis study mentioned earlier and recall that they found CBD was not only active in the knee where it was applied, but in the bloodstream. CBD creams can provide moderate doses to those suffering from conditions like nausea, irritable bowel syndrome, or paralysis which make it difficult to take anything orally.

Edible CBD oil products, often called tinctures, drops, or liquids, offer a convenient way to take large, consistent doses. They can be highly concentrated with some products containing several grams (100x the dose of a vape pen) of CBD infused into a carrier oil. They are tasteless and can be added to drinks, foods, or taken straight from the dropper.

CBD Oil Side Effects Are Different Than Other Common Pain Medications 

Nausea, vomiting, constipation, dry mouth, weakness, sweating, lightheadedness, dizziness, and drowsiness are a few of the side effects associated with pharmaceutical pain medication. Opioids notoriously put users in a fog which can prevent them from safely operating motor vehicles, machinery, or maintaining a job. CBD poses none of those risks. Non-intoxicating, CBD oil side effects are mild–low blood pressure, lightheadedness, drowsiness, and dry mouth. 

“Cannabidiol has antipsychotic effects. The exact cause of these effects is not clear. But cannabidiol seems to prevent the breakdown of a chemical in the brain that affects pain, mood, and mental function.  augments natural processes in the body. There is no chemical dependency or altered state with the use of CBD oil for pain.” 

Opioids, in contrast, are incredibly addictive and one of the most commonly prescribed treatments for pain in the US. The federal government declared an Opioid Epidemic Public Health Emergency in 2017. Today children are twice as likely to try OxyContin and Vicodin than heroin. 80% of heroin addicts first used opioids. Nearly 30% of patients prescribed opioids develop an addiction. Over 130 people die from opioid overdoses every single day.

CBD and cannabis are responsible for zero deaths. Cannabidiol isn’t addictive, and when it replaces opioids in an individual’s pain treatment, it eliminates all of the alarming statistics just mentioned. Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health stated in 2015 that states with medical marijuana, which includes CBD varieties, as a treatment for pain, reduce opioid deaths. This is perhaps the best reason for trying CBD oil for pain, the lack of risk compared to traditional pain drugs.


Benham, Barbara, and JH Bloomberg School of Public Health. “State Medical Marijuana Laws Linked to Lower Prescription Overdose Deaths.” Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. June 26, 2015. https://www.jhsph.edu/news/news-releases/2014/state-medical-marijuana-laws-linked-to-lower-prescription-overdose-deaths.html.

“Cannabidiol Provides Long-lasting Protection against the Deleterious Effects of Inflammation in a Viral Model of Multiple Sclerosis: A Role for A2A Receptors.” Neurobiology of Disease. July 11, 2013. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0969996113001939.

“Survey: 89% of Seniors Would Recommend CBD to a Friend | Remedy Review.” Survey: 89% of Seniors Would Recommend CBD to a Friend | Remedy Review. https://www.remedyreview.com/data/survey-89-of-seniors-whove-tried-cbd-would-recommend-it-to-a-friend/.

“The Non-psychoactive Cannabis Constituent Cannabidiol Is an Orally Effective Therapeutic Agent in Rat Chronic Inflammatory and Neuropathic Pain.” European Journal of Pharmacology. November 10, 2006. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S001429990601257X.

“The Non-psychoactive Phytocannabinoid Cannabidiol (CBD) Attenuates Pro-inflammatory Mediators, T Cell Infiltration, and Thermal Sensitivity following Spinal Cord Injury in Mice.” Cellular Immunology. March 08, 2018. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0008874918300911.

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