When we think of pain relief from cannabis, we often think of rolling up a joint, turning on our favorite show, and waiting for the pain to melt away in a haze of smoke. But with the fast-growing trend of cannabis topicals, we might need to start rethinking the role that cannabis plays when it comes to pain relief. That role might start looking more like a daily moisturizing regime.
What are cannabis topicals?
Cannabis topicals are cannabis-infused creams, balms, salves, or lotions that are applied to the skin to relieve pain, soreness, or inflammation in localized areas. Sometimes the topicals are also infused with other soothing ingredients such as wintergreen, cayenne, or clove.
What can cannabis topicals be used for?
Cannabis topicals can be used to relieve any kind of pain, soreness, or inflammation. Some patients use topicals to soothe sore muscles after a session at the gym. After exercising, the body may experience damage in a number of different ways, including cell oxidation or the tearing of muscles. Cannabis has antioxidant properties that can help to prevent cell oxidation, as well as anti-inflammatory properties that come in handy when experiencing the soreness that usually comes hand-in-hand with a good workout.
We spoke with Didi from topical company, Sweet ReLeaf, about the various uses of cannabis topicals for different kinds of pain. “The great thing about a good topical is that it will address most kinds of pain whether in muscles, joints, and feet, on the skin or even internally like for menstrual cramps. But all topicals are not created the same, so it’s good to research their intention for creating them. For example, is it for bath salts for calming ragged nerves, or is it a spray to help ease sunburn? Sweet ReLeaf was created specifically for chronic pain so it has much higher concentrations of cannabinoids than most other topicals, and it was created in a synergistic combination aimed specifically at pain reduction no matter where it’s applied. Patients should be open minded about trying out different brands on their specific needs to see what works for them and then using it consistently for best results.”
Cannabis topicals can be used to treat chronic pain such as arthritis. As previously mentioned, cannabis’ anti-inflammatory properties can decrease inflammation, including the chronic inflammation and pain of arthritis. There is evidence that cannabis can do more than relieve arthritis pain; it may actually help reverse the condition. This may be because arthritis patients have more CB2 receptors in their damaged joints than a person without arthritis would have. It’s like the human body is asking for the healing properties of cannabis. In a study conducted to see whether or not cannabis can help heal patients with arthritis, researchers have begun to surmise that not only can cannabis help with arthritis pain relief, but that by applying cannabis topicals to affected joints, and in many cases the damage can be healed and mobility returned.
In another study, it was evidenced that activating the endocannabinoid system with cannabis topicals can help regulate immune responses in the skin. Due to anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, and immunity-modulating properties, cannabis-infused topicals can help treat skin allergies as well as skin injuries. You can use cannabis topicals to relieve burns, rashes, eczema, psoriasis, and skin infections.
Deborah Caldwell from Topicanna Sungrown, says about treating skin ailments with topicals, “We have found that skin conditions are best soothed with a whole flower infusion of cannabis. Eczema, psoriasis and other chronic skin ailments are often secondary to major inflammatory conditions. Topical cannabis can reduce the inflammation and associated discomfort.”
How do cannabis topicals work?
Cannabis topicals are transdermal methods of binding cannabinoids found in cannabis to CB2 receptors found in the body’s endocannabinoid system. When cannabinoids bind with CB2 receptors, the body experiences a decrease in inflammation and a relief from pain. Because there are CB2 receptors found close to the surface of the skin, in most cases applying a topical to the area experiencing pain will provide a faster, more localized pain relief than smoking or ingesting marijuana.
Topicals are an excellent form of pain relief for patients who don’t want to use pharmaceutical medications, and at the same time do not want the “high” you get from smoking or ingesting marijuana. This is because the cannabinoids in topicals bind to CB2 receptors near the skin, so the compounds are never absorbed into the bloodstream (Not to be confused with transdermal patches that differ from topical creams in that the medicine enters directly into the bloodstream by penetrating through all seven layers of the skin, and thus can have a psychoactive effect).
An alternative form of pain relief
We live in a society that is addicted to pain medication. For things like acute or chronic pain or arthritis, patients tend to reach for opioids, because this is what doctors tend to prescribe. However, opioids do have their limits and their dangers.
If taken frequently, (i.e. for chronic pain) patients can build an immunity to opioids. This means that in order to achieve the same level of pain relief, a patient must continue to increase the dosage to get the same effect. Furthermore, a diet of opioids leaves patients open to the risk of dependence and overdose. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that more than 33,000 Americans died from opioid overdose in 2015, nearly half of which were prescription opioids used for pain relief.
Deborah from Topicanna Sungrown is a believer in the use of cannabis for pain relief instead of opioids. “The medical community freely prescribes opioids for acute and chronic pain, even though they only provide symptomatic relief from pain. Opioids offer an absence of pain that patients desire, but cannabis applied topically can reduce inflammation which can reduce pain. Topical cannabis is often effective in providing relief, but with more severe chronic pain the addition of a sublingual dose or other methods of delivery might be the tipping point to successful pain management and cessation of opioid use. Cannabis topicals provide a non-risky, fast-acting form of localized relief that can be used instead of habit-forming, hazardous opioids.”
An option that works
Because of the Schedule I classification of marijuana by the federal government – which holds that cannabis has no medicinal benefits – much of the research on cannabis is anecdotal. Topical manufacturers get to witness much of these anecdotes in the making.
“We had a 94 year old man present in a wheel chair lamenting he could barely walk from neuropathy in his feet but was doubly sad as he used to dance a lot. After applying our topical two times a day for three weeks, he was walking again, and after three more weeks, dancing and musing that it also cured his toenail fungus! This is an example of what I call ‘intelligent’ medicine. It addressed other needs than the immediate condition being treated. Topicals work great for folks who have to carry on with daily work and everyday functions because they take away the pain, but don’t affect you in any other way,” says Didi.
A future of pain relief
As more states legalize cannabis and more evidence surfaces on the efficacy of cannabis, it’s possible that there is a future where cannabis topicals will be the norm for aches and pains instead of a bottle of pills.
“I honestly believe topicals will lead the way to overall acceptance by the larger populous and be carried in Whole Foods and Walgreens way before any other canna products because there’s no psychoactivity, therefore they do not fit in the category as a Schedule I drug!” says Didi of the future of topicals.
Deborah also sees a future in cannabis topicals, stating, “The future of cannabis topicals will be with artisan producers, careful cultivators of cannabis varietals specific to pain reduction. The ‘entourage effect’ model of endocannabinoid medicine can only be experienced with plant material that has been cultivated and handled to preserve the 200 known and many unknown molecules that comprise cannabis. Large scale cannabis is going to be cultivated like commercial tomatoes. Topicals have piqued the interest of a growing number of baby boomers and this educated population will demand quality and transparency in production and cultivation. The days of the “crazy cat lady” sweeping up the trim room to make salves are over.”
If you’re experiencing soreness or inflammation, or you’re suffering from arthritis or skin irritation, take a cannabis topical for a spin. There is no risk of adverse side-effects, and no chance of experiencing the “high” that comes with smoking or ingesting marijuana. You might find that pain relief is simpler than you thought.