Using Cannabis for Pain Relief

Medically reviewed by Alexander Tabibi, MD
August 15, 2020
Pain Relief
Pain Relief

Cannabis and Pain Relief

For patients suffering from acute pain or more long-term chronic pain-related disorders, cannabis is believed by many to be a significant and powerful tool to deliver relief to those whose pain severely impairs their quality of life. In this article, we will discuss the two main cannabinoids, cannabidiol (CBD) and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC)

Whether experiencing an accident or more chronic disorders like fibromyalgia or have symptoms related to the treatment of another illness like cancer, there is in addition to the growing usage, more scientific evidence supporting marijuana can improve clients’ quality of life by easing typical causes of discomfort including swelling, as well as the associated secondary effects of pain such as stress, depression, and anxiety.

Cannabinoids vs Opiates

The importance of pain management in managing patients’ discomfort cannot be underestimated. However, another issue that has brought this topic to the forefront of the news and public consciousness is the opioid epidemic which has been an ever-worsening situation in the US (e.g. Oxycontin and heroin abuse). The CDC estimates that approximately 450,000 people died due to opioid overdoses (both prescription and illicit). The recent increasing frequency of overdose is also linked to the lacing of heroin and other opioids with fentanyl which is a much stronger opiate causing a much higher frequency of overdose and death.

There is also increasing evidence that the introduction of legal access to cannabis leads to a decrease in marijuana use and overdoses. The potential ability therefore of marijuana to help give pain relief to patients without risking addiction to the far riskier opioids in which addiction is a greater risk, especially with higher dosages and longer-term use. While THC has addictive potential – it does not have a risk of death by overdose.

THC vs CBD for pain

THC being the main and psychoactive cannabinoid component of the cannabis plant and CBD being the main cannabinoid in hemp – are the most studied and discussed cannabinoids for the reduction of discomfort.

CBD in human studies has found to have several effects including activating the endocannabinoid system (ECS) by binding to peripheral CB2 receptors and CBD is believed to affect as many as 60 other receptors. The effects are a decrease in pain perception and inflammation (& swelling). Other analgesic mechanisms include inhibition of neurotransmitter and neuropeptide release from nerve endings and modulation of neuron excitability.

What does the science say?

Reading the studies and scientific research on the topic is as enlightening as reading the studies and scientific research on the condition. In a nutshell, doctors don’t really understand pain, and how the whole body responds and contributes to it. It’s like stress. And each person’s reaction to it varies. So the studies are as mixed as the viewpoints on the topic, and on the scientific biases.

But the human body is designed to cope, and accept the stimuli for pain relief, and that applies to the cannabinoid types as well. So we are biologically programmed to accept the help cannabis offers.

The continued mixed outcomes of the studies are also because there are so many different types and causes of pain, and it’s impossible, and wholly unethical, to really perform pain-specific studies, on humans definitely, but with growing concern on animal studies. The format of the research then is inherently biased with existing users and study design, which doesn’t account for underlying conditions as much and its effects on tolerance.

How to use Medical Marijuana for Pain

With so many options for consumption available, it’s not always clear the best option for the different conditions, needs, and opportunities. Which option you choose depends on the type of pain you have, and your own personal needs and reactions.

What form you choose may also depend on the type of pain you’re suffering from, and if the pain is a primary condition or an underlying one. It also depends on your preference.

From smoking to vaping, edibles to oils, there are options that will suit your specific needs for your specific concerns. If you are subject to drug testing in your life, you will want to consider a hemp-derived CBD isolate that contains zero THC, while if you’re not concerned by that you may want to try a full-spectrum CBD option that allows for the full entourage effect.  Other options include Delta 8 THC or Delta 9 THC derived from hemp which contain less than .3% THC.

If you’re in a position where you have the option of fully legal medical marijuana, you can discuss different strains with your doctor and cannabis expert to find the right match for your needs and lifestyle, as well as the best format for use.

The thing about pain is that it’s personal; it’s individual. It may be part of another condition, or it may be chronic or acute. It’s always best to speak with your healthcare provider to determine the sources and triggers, to help discover the best solution for you, together.


While the FDA hasn’t approved any cannabis products for the treatment of pain, it’s been shown through anecdotal outcomes and reports from users and patients that indicate medical marijuana has been an effective treatment option. It not only eases tension and relaxes the mind and body, but it also reduces inflammation, all of which contribute to the increase in pain and associated symptoms.

Currently, available analgesic treatments such as anti-inflammatory drugs and opioids by themselves are not sufficiently effective for many painful conditions. Since the discovery of the ECS and the endocannabinoid receptors, we better understand the mechanism of action of endogenous and exogenous cannabinoids. CB1 receptors in the central nervous system are involved in modulating pain perception and the rapid growth in our understanding of chemical pathways and pain mechanisms. As they act differently than opioids and NSAIDs, CBD and THC appear to have particular benefits for neuropathic and inflammatory pain. Additionally combining cannabinoids with other treatments may cause synergy – thereby reducing pain with lower doses – providing better relief, fewer potential side effects and improving safety.

Always check with your healthcare provider when adding or changing your treatment regimen, and review any possibility of interactions with other medications you may be taking. Individuals respond differently to the chemicals within the products, and there are different strains that may work for your specific needs.