CBD for pain management
For some people, chronic pain, in whatever form, can be debilitating and restricting. It interferes with everyday life, makes simple tasks a huge struggle and can impact on mental health.
Maybe other treatments haven’t been effective, or you’re keen to stop relying on painkillers that come with unwanted side-effects. Perhaps CBD oil caught your eye, others say it works – that you should try it. But what’s the science behind it and does it really work for pain management?
What is CBD?
Cannabidiol (CBD) is a non-psychoactive chemical produced by the cannabis plant. It’s one of more than 120 cannabinoids found in the plant. Unlike other cannabinoids, such as tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), CBD doesn’t get you ‘high’ or have a psychoactive effect. This is because it doesn’t affect the same receptors in your body as THC.
Because it's oil soluble, CBD can be mixed with hemp, coconut, olive and other oils to enhance its absorption in the body. It can also be taken in gel capsules, vapour pens, balms and gummies.
How does CBD work in our bodies?
The human body has an endocannabinoid system (ECS) that receives and translates signals from cannabinoids that exist naturally within your body – called endocannabinoids. The ECS helps to regulate functions such as sleep, digestion and pain. Your body has two cannabinoid receptors: CB1 and CB2. When someone ingests CBD, these receptors are stimulated to produce cannabinoids which have the effect of promoting homeostasis (which means maintaining a constant environment, or balance). Essentially, it’s thought that taking CBD is simply supplementing a naturally-occurring bodily system.
Many people aren’t familiar with the ECS, despite its important and vital role within the human body. The system wasn’t discovered until the 80s and still not fully understood. However, scientists are eager to know more about this fascinating system and how cannabinoids play a role in many bodily functions. In recent years, interest has gathered momentum and the interaction between CBD oil and the ECS is now a focus for much research.
Can CBD help ease chronic pain?
Many people use CBD to help manage chronic pain. And by chronic we mean long-term. Whether that’s in the form of back pain, arthritis, headaches or pain related to a health condition, anecdotal stories and scientific studies alike, are showing how effective it can be.
Studies on CBD oil for pain management have shown promising results, to date, and the greatest appeal is that it offers an alternative option to taking pain killers daily. But there still needs to be more research into the pain-relieving benefits before its use can be widely accepted. CBD products aren’t yet approved by the FDA (US Food and Drug Administration) for any medical use. Despite this, there is much research in the area and studies continue to show promise in the area of pain management.
How does it work?
As we said earlier, CBD interacts with the receptors, CB1 and CB2, in your brain and immune system. These receptors are tiny proteins that receive chemical signals from different stimuli (in this case CBD) to have an anti-inflammatory and painkilling effect in the body.
A 2008 scientific review looked at studies conducted between the 1980s and 2007. Researchers concluded that CBD was effective in overall pain management with minimal side effects. It was also noted that CBD helped people with chronic pain overcome insomnia and broken sleep, and especially beneficial to people with multiple sclerosis (MS).
CBD oil for arthritis pain
Arthritis is when you have pain, swelling and stiffness in a joint or joints. It isn’t a single condition and there are several different types. Around 10 million people in the UK are thought to have arthritis. It can affect people of all ages – even children and teenagers, but some forms of arthritis are more common in older people.
The condition can make day-to-day life tough by causing pain and making it harder to get about and carry out simple tasks. The symptoms of arthritis can vary from day to day, and week to week. Sadly, some types of arthritis, such as osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis, are long-term conditions (chronic).
Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an autoimmune disease, which is where a person's immune system attacks their joints, causing inflammation. RA mostly affects the hands and feet, and leads to painful, swollen and stiff joints.
Osteoarthritis (OA) is a degenerative disease that affects joint cartilage and bones, causing pain and stiffness. It usually affects joints in the hip, knee and thumb.
To date, studies on animals suggest that CBD could help to treat arthritis by relieving the inflammatory and pain it causes. Here is a brief overview:
A 2011 study performed in rats found that CBD helped to reduce inflammatory pain by affecting the way that pain receptors respond.
A 2014 scientific review concluded that CBD may be an effective treatment for OA.
A 2016 trial found that the topical application of CBD (which is when a medication is applied to the skin) had the potential to relieve pain and inflammation associated with arthritis.
A 2017 study concluded that CBD is ‘a safe and useful’ treatment for OA joint pain.
The main issue is that most studies have been done in animals and trials showing its effectiveness in humans are still lacking. While findings so far have been promising, more research is needed to confirm that CBD oil is an effective treatment for arthritis pain in humans.
CBD for low-back pain
Back pain is very common, with around one in three of us getting it every year. Usually, it’s the lower back that’s affected which can be caused by an injury, poor posture, a sedentary lifestyle with little physical movement or regular exercise, or ageing.
Back pain can be classed as acute or chronic. Acute pain resolves quickly. Chronic back lasts for more than 12 weeks or more. It can make daily living very hard, especially if you have a physically demanding job or children to care for. It can interfere with your sleep and make commuting to work a misery.
Treatment of back pain may involve use of heat and ice, exercises and stretching, physiotherapy, taking over-the-counter painkillers or even surgery in some extreme cases. However, researchers have recently been looking at whether CBD oil could be an effective treatment to ease back pain, with promising results so far.
Why is CBD a good option for back pain?
There is great concern in the medical community about long-term use of over-the-counter and prescribed painkillers. They can have side-effects on the body and cause habit-forming and addiction. Considering surgery for back pain, the success rates are usually low. Because of these reasons, a natural non-invasive treatment option is appealing – and that’s where CBD may have a role. It’s been found to have anti-inflammatory properties and shows promise as an alternative method for managing back pain.
Looking towards scientific trials, a 2012 study found that CBD was effective in the suppression of both inflammatory and neuropathic pain in mice. This suggest that CBD could be a safe and effective method for managing chronic back pain, as well as other forms of chronic pain.
A 2017 study in humans observed improvement in chronic pain over the course of a 12-month period. A review conducted the same year concluded that cannabinoids could be effective for pain management, but larger studies need to be carried out to show the benefits.
The appeal to users and the medical community alike is that CBD oil for back pain could become an alternative option to treatments that come with a risk of habit forming or side-effects.
Relieving tension headaches
Tension headaches are the most common type of headache, usually causing a mild-to-moderate dull, achy pain. It might feel like a tight band around your entire head or be in a specific area, such as the back of your neck or behind your ears, at the base of your skull. Accompanying symptoms include a tenderness in your scalp, neck and shoulders, fatigue and difficulty sleeping.
A number of things can trigger tension headaches, including stress, insomnia, anxiety, skipping meals, poor posture, clenching or grinding teeth, or being in an uncomfortable position for a prolonged time. They can be debilitating and the pain overwhelming, to the point where you can only lie down and rest until the pain subsides.
There have been few studies into CBD and headaches specifically, but many scientific trials have linked CBD oil with pain-relieving properties. And there are many stories across the web of people using CBD to relieve headaches and migraines, with great success.
CBD and cancer pain
Both cancer itself and treatments for it can cause pain. This is due to inflammation in the body, nerve injury or side-effects of certain drugs or treatments. It’s thought that CBD indirectly acts on CB2 receptors, which may help reduce inflammation and therefore pain. Although studies are lacking in this area, there are plenty of anecdotal stories across the internet about how CBD has improved daily life for those receiving cancer treatment.
Should I use CBD for pain management?
CBD has an excellent safety profile to date, with minimal side-effects. It’s safe for consumption and a natural product. Because research around CBD is still mostly at early stages, it’s hard to say for sure exactly how effective it is when it comes to managing pain. But for those that suffer chronically with pain, it could certainly be something to explore.
There is an obvious difficulty associated with managing and treating chronic pain. Many people who have endured years of pain are often open-minded to trying non-conventional, natural treatments or products. They are usually keen to move away from long-term use of painkillers or stronger pharmaceutical drugs that have both immediate side-effects and long-term implications.
It’s important to talk to your doctor or GP about trying CBD. It can interact with some other medications, although painkillers are not flagged to be one of them. Don’t stopped any conventional treatments you currently take unless you’ve had a clear conversation with your doctor and they are happy with that decision. Remember, CBD products should never be used to replace prescribed medication without professional, medical advice.
You could maybe start with a low dosage of CBD and then try to reduce your use of other pain management drugs as you increase your CBD dose. In some cases, people have been able to entirely cut out pain management drugs.
Things to consider
If you suffer with chronic pain and you’re keen to try CBD, be mindful of the quality of the oil you purchase. In one study, more than a quarter of 84 products purchased online contained less CBD than labelled. Do your research and find a high-quality oil. It should be 50 percent CBD or more, with no or only trace amounts of THC. Only buy CBD oil that has been manufactured in Canada, Europe or the USA, and double check the label and packaging when you receive it.