How Can Cannabis Help Relieve Pain?

Joe Evans
Joe Evans - Content Writer

Jul 21 2021 - 4 min read

Saying that Americans have a pain problem would be an understatement. According to the CDC, 1 in 5 American adults deal with some type of chronic pain. For those who aren’t great at math, that’s nearly 20 million Americans whose daily lives are interrupted by measurable, substantial pain. With that many people suffering in some way, it’s no wonder that so many have turned to powerful opioids for some kind of relief. For those familiar with the issues associated with opioids, however, the amount of Americans taking the number of opioids they do is deeply troubling.

In 2019 alone, nearly 50,000 people in the U.S. alone died from opioid-involved overdoses. The addiction and misuse rates on often prescribed drugs like hydrocodone, oxycodone, oxymorphone, morphine, codeine, fentanyl lead to the use of harder, street-sourced drugs like heroin. This suggests that, to some extent at least, prescription drugs are the actual gateway drugs. These sorts of addiction and death stats are a key reason why more and more Americans of all ages are turning to cannabis as a way of dealing with their pain.

So in celebration of Opioid Awareness Month this July, let’s break down how medical cannabis helps relieve pains of all types, why it’s so effective at doing so, and break down the overall role medical cannabis can play in pain management at every stage of life.

Graph Showing Numbers of Deaths via Opioid Overdose 2002-2015. Cannabis could be an alternative to opioids.
Numbers of deaths from opioid overdose. Cannabis could help reduce opioid use. From NIH.

The Science of Cannabis for Pain Management

At this point, the science that links cannabis to pain relief is undeniable. Medical cannabis has been shown to be effective in helping those dealing with neuropathy, sciatica pain, arthritis, and general back pain, along with a massive list of other conditions and ailments as well.

In fact, medical cannabis is so effective at dulling pain that multiple studies have shown that medical cannabis is as effective, if not better, than opioids at treating pain with far fewer side effects. Data from a survey directed by a Michigan medical cannabis dispensary claimed that use of medical cannabis was associated with a 64 percent decrease in the use of opioids overall. In addition, a recent analysis of prescription data from Medicare Part D enrollees in states with medical access to cannabis suggested a substantial reduction in prescriptions for conventional pain medications, principally opioids.

A number of research studies examined the efficacy of medical cannabis in treating chronic pain and other conditions. For example, the findings from a 2019 study published in the Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, which evaluated data from 1,000 individuals taking legalized cannabis in one state, found that among the 65 percent of individuals taking cannabis for pain, 80 percent found it was very or tremendously helpful.

But what exactly is it about medical cannabis that makes it so effective at helping folks deal with pain? The key lies in the way that the two major cannabinoids, THC and CBD, interact with our bodies and brains.

Cannabis plant next to some prescription pharmaceuticals - opioids.
Cannabis could be (and for many is) an ideal alternative to opioids for controlling chronic pain.

The Impact of THC, CBD and Other Cannabinoids on Pain

The reason why THC is so effective at easing our pain is that it so closely resembles the naturally occurring cannabinoid chemicals that our bodies create. So when additional THC is taken in via some medical cannabis, that THC can immediately go to work stimulating our brains. That stimulation is where the pain-numbing (sedative) effects come from. The same basic principles apply to CBD.

While the other cannabinoids that naturally occur within the cannabis plant play a role in reducing and helping users to manage pain as well, the research suggests that THC is the primary cannabinoid to use, with CBD following behind.

Naturally, strains of medical cannabis with higher concentrations of both of these compounds are more effective at reducing pain. After all, those suffering from conditions like cancer, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), or fibromyalgia were some of the first to be given access to medical cannabis.

Apart from THC’s sedative effects, here’s why CBD and other cannabinoids help treat pain so well:

  • The receptors that are responsible for THC’s psychoactive effects – CB1 receptors – are found in the same areas of the brain as opioid receptors, and actually influence how they behave. This is one of the reasons why cannabis can reduce the intake of opioid-based painkillers.
  • CBD changes the shape of CB1 receptors, lowering the “volume” of the pain signals being sent (this is called “allosteric modulation“).
  • THC, CBD, cannabigerol (CBG), cannabichromene (CBC) and many other cannabinoids have anti-inflammatory effects. Cannabinoids work together in tandem to improve their anti-inflammatory effects, and are much more effective when used together (the entourage effect) than using single cannabinoids alone (e.g. THC or CBD only).
  • Anxiety, depression and insomnia often accompanies chronic pain, and can often make chronic pain feel worse. This is why it’s not uncommon for chronic pain patients to be prescribed antidepressants. CBD and low-to-moderate doses of THC can have anti-anxiety and antidepressant effects.
  • Cannabis contains a multitude of therapeutic cannabinoids and terpenes, all of which can be used in different doses and ratios for different health problems. Moreover, you can treat different kinds of pain (physical, mental, emotional and even spiritual – what Dame Cicely Saunders calls “total pain”) all in one go.
    Cannabis is quite literally a pharmacy in a plant, and for this reason can help reduce or even replace entirely the need for more addictive, risky or harmful drugs like opioids, sedatives, antidepressants and powerful non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like diclofenac (Voltaren). This ultimately reduces pill intake and the chances of a fatal overdose.
Cannabis vs. Prescription and OTC Medications
Cannabis and cannabinoids with multi-receptor impact, or prescription medications with single receptor impact?

The Bottom Line

As the science behind medical cannabis has become more and more concerted over the past decade or so, so has our understanding of the impact that cannabis can have when it comes to reducing and managing pain. Not only is cannabis natural and non-addictive, but it’s proven to be just as if not more effective than opioids with almost none of the same nasty side effects.

And, unlike opioids and opiates, Leafwell is your one-stop resource for picking up a medical cannabis card of your own to utilize that clean, green medicine! With just a few clicks you’ll be connected with a licensed cannabis doctor who can get you access to the medical cannabis you need to ease that nagging chronic pain, no matter where in your body it pops up!

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Written by
Joe Evans
Joe Evans

Joe Evans is a journalist, writer, editor and contributor for Leafwell. He has, to date, more than 5,000 articles published online under his byline on topics like cannabis, local and National news, politics, automotive news, sports, pop culture and even a cult.

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