Aside from epilepsy, which is so effectively treated by cannabinoids that the FDA has approved a prescription drug for the condition based on CBD, medical marijuana is most often associated with treatment for chronic pain.
A recent study found that chronic pain was the qualifying condition for patient medical marijuana cards in 65 percent of cases.
But how does cannabis actually impact chronic pain? Is there a good reason for chronic pain sufferers to seek marijuana treatment, or is it merely a passing fad? Read on to find out.
The Endocannabinoid System
To understand what cannabis does for chronic pain, one first must understand the endocannabinoid system. Present in living creatures since before human evolution, the endocannabinoid system is a biological system responsible for maintaining homeostasis within the human body.
The system produces molecules called endocannabinoids, which help to regulate different functions in different systems, like memory, immunity, digestion, respiration, and more.
The goal of both endocannabinoids and the endocannabinoid system is to keep the body balanced and functioning normally, regardless of the surrounding environment.
The endocannabinoid system works alongside the nervous system, helping the brain to communicate different kinds of messages — especially those concerning pain.
Endocannabinoids that generate a pain response is created by the endocannabinoid system upon injury and dissipate upon healing — but sometimes, something goes wrong.
If the body is unable to heal an injury fully, the endocannabinoid system may continue to incite a pain response; additionally, the endocannabinoid system can become dysfunctional, causing pain symptoms even in the absence of physical damage. Thus, taking control of the endocannabinoid system can be an effective way of managing chronic pain. This is where the use of cannabis comes in.
THC vs. CBD
When users consume cannabis, unique compounds called cannabinoids make their way into the bloodstream, where they travel to interact with endocannabinoid receptors in the brain and body.
There are more than 100 known cannabinoids, but only two seem to have a promising impact on the experience of pain: THC and CBD.
Delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinoid (THC) has become the most prominent cannabinoid, thanks to its favorable psychoactive properties. THC functions similarly to endocannabinoids: It binds to endocannabinoid receptors, compelling certain systems to act in certain ways. However, unlike endocannabinoids, THC floods the endocannabinoid system and forces extraordinary responses, like euphoria, muscle relaxation, and strong hunger. When a user overdoses on THC, these responses become extreme, manifesting as paranoia, panic, and severe nausea.
The second most prevalent cannabinoid, CBD was once thought to bind with other endocannabinoid receptors ignored by THC — but researchers have found no evidence of this behavior.
Instead, prevailing theories suggest that CBD influences the endocannabinoid system to produce more of certain beneficial endocannabinoids, which facilitate feelings of comfort, calm, and relaxation.
Both THC and CBD seem to have effects on the experience of pain — CBD by reducing inflammation and facilitating healing and THC by disrupting pain signals and replacing them with more pleasant sensations.
Some researchers believe that THC and CBD function synergistically to address the issue of pain, and they might also make good use of less prominent cannabis chemicals like terpenes and flavonoids.
The problem is that many modern cannabis strains are not bred for balanced THC and CBD content. Because THC is responsible for the enjoyable high, most cannabis growers focus on increasing THC content as much as possible — which isn’t ideal for those seeking treatment for chronic pain.
Instead, users should look for full-spectrum concentrates, which include higher CBD content but do not eliminate THC, terpenes, flavonoids, or other useful compounds.
It might be worth noting that full-spectrum and broad-spectrum concentrates are not identical; users confused about the difference might ask questions at a trustworthy dispensary, like any of these: https://weedmaps.com/dispensaries/in/united-states/california
Though researchers aren’t totally clear on how cannabis affects the experience of pain, they are certain that it does.
By experimenting with different cannabis products, users should be able to find a safe and effective management program to live successfully with chronic pain.