Yes, CBD Creams Relieve Pain. But Science is Still Learning About the Benefits and Risks
Topical CBD creams can treat pain, discomfort and inflammation. Here’s what science knows about how they work.
Our knees ache, our backs hurt, our feet throb. Pain is one thing everybody wants gone. Unfortunately for chronic pain sufferers, many treatments come with unwanted side effects.
Opioid pain relief can cause nausea, constipation and addiction. Standard anti-inflammatory meds carry the risk of stomach issues, including bleeding. The limited options prompt many folks to try creams and lotions containing cannabidiol (CBD).
Researchers have confirmed that CBD works against pain and inflammation , and they’re still finding new ways that it works in the body . They’re also working to nail down the proper dose of topical CBD needed for pain relief. For example, the dose that brings relief to achy joints may be insufficient to effectively treat nerve damage in feet. While rubbing topical CBD onto the skin seems to work, researchers still need to figure out how much skin coverage is most effective. Some skin creams also contain menthols, which carry their own pain relief and anti-inflammatory properties, possibly masking any effect from the CBD itself.
CBD is one of the hundreds of biologically active ingredients produced in Cannabis sativa plants. Unlike THC, its psychoactive cousin that makes people feel high, CBD can ease pain without the euphoria or fear of addiction. The cannabinoid has similar effects whether absorbed through the skin or ingested by mouth.
Skin in the Game
Pain is a big driver behind opioid addiction. Many people who began treating chronic pain with prescription opioids have switched to heroin when other drugs became difficult to get. A lot of people have died as a result, says Yasmin Hurd , an addiction specialist at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York. “We have so many people in our society now experimenting with CBD to manage pain,” she says. “They are going to their clinicians and asking them for CBD.”
By the time you feel any annoying itch or prick of pain, CB1 and CB2 receptors on your skin cells have already fired off signals to help dampen those unpleasant vibes. These receptors — part of the body’s endocannabinoid system — spend their workdays responding to chemical messages that help our skin nurture a healthy balance. CBD cream bypasses the CB1 and CB2 receptors and heads straight for a neurotransmitter middleman that blocks signals for pain and itch by working through agents called anandamide and 2-AG.
Sidestepping the CB1 and CB2 receptors means that CBD can mute pain without the high sensation delivered by THC. Not only does CBD have very little interest in switching on CB1, cannabidiol can actually mute any signals sent to that receptor. Researchers looking for safer pain treatments want to take advantage of this action because it means that CBD won’t spark addiction.
So far, though, most larger scientific studies on CBD have been limited to animals. A handful of small human trials are now underway to evaluate the extent of cannabidiol’s pain relief potential. Even without clinical trials, many people already use legal CBD to counteract the intense discomfort brought on by chemotherapy, and to ease pain in arthritic joints. Texas-based dermatologist Jennifer Clay Cather, who cares for people with complicated skin problems, says most of her patients come from oncology. She also owns a research company that develops CBD skin products. “We need large, evidence-based trials testing different conditions, and also testing the reproducibility of the molecule,” Cather says.
Skin Tight Data
Consumers aren’t waiting for clinical trials. But they need to remember, says Hurd, that slathering on creams can be risky, considering how the skin absorbs everything. Even topical CBD can react with oral medications.
Hurd suggests telling your doctor if you are using CBD creams because what’s absorbed into your skin will get into your bloodstream. “These are sometimes things people don’t appreciate when they are putting cream ‘only on my knee,’” says Hurd. “We also have a lot of seniors using CBD creams for arthritic pain and we need to know sooner rather than later whether this chemical cream used by so many people can indeed be effective.”
Consumers need to be educated, as well, says Cather. She works to develop a trusting relationship with her patients, so that they’ll feel comfortable talking about using CBD. She also urges her patients to find companies that document what’s actually in the bottle or jar. Asking the company about their quality control, such as how often they document ingredients, can help also vet the product.
With successful clinical trials, the future could even bring CBD pain relief with medications containing THC, or perhaps pairing CBD with opioids. But for now, says Hurd, “we are still at the beginning of really understanding these roles for CBD in pain.”
CBD for muscle pain: Topicals and pills can help, but research is limited
Does CBD actually work for muscle pain? We explore what the research says and whether topics or oral supplements are better.
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It’s touted as a sleep aid , stress killer and even a performance enhancer, but one of the big selling points of CBD is pain relief . Many have turned to it when other remedies haven’t worked or in addition to them.
But what about using CBD post-workout to help your muscles recover and reduce soreness? It’s a different than the chronic pain that most turn to CBD for, but some research suggests it could help replace hot/cold creams and over the counter anti-inflammatory meds.
There are hundreds of CBD products to choose from — both oral and topical — and the type you choose might make all the difference for your aches and pains.
How topical CBD works for muscle soreness and pain
The promise is simple — slather on a cream or gel with CBD where it hurts to relieve pain. But whether or not they actually work is another story.
Topical CBD has only been minimally studied, says Stuart Titus, CEO of Medical Marijuana, Inc. “Generally, there are also herbs or other ‘skin-penetrating’ ingredients in the final formulation of topical CBD products,” Titus says. “Other ingredients such as arnica or menthol are added in order to make product claims such as pain relief.”
In many cases, Titus explains, the concentration of CBD is often low in topical products, and the soothing sensation you feel is a product of the other ingredients. It’s important for consumers to review not only the ingredients list, but also the certificate of analysis, which reveals the total concentration of different cannabinoids in a product.
A CoA shows the weight percentage of CBD and other cannabinoids, including THC, so only then can you interpret the amount of CBD per “serving” of topical application, Titus says. Make sure the CoA is done by an independent, third-party lab, too.
Is CBD the cure to nagging sore muscles?
That said, high-quality, potent topical CBD products are thought to offer temporary relief from pain and soreness. There’s a high concentration of cannabinoid receptors in the skin, and when CBD is applied topically, it activates the endocannabinoid system through those receptors. CBD binds to the cannabinoid receptors in your epidermal and dermal skin, a process that results in alleviation of pain and inflammation. The anti-inflammatory effect is also why topical CBD is an effective treatment for some skin disorders.
Topical CBD only works where you use it — applying CBD cream to your legs when your abs are sore won’t do you any good. This can be a benefit or a drawback depending on your situation. For example, if you tend to experience full-body soreness, you’d have to use a lot of CBD cream for relief and that can get tedious and expensive.
Just remember, human skin is incredibly absorptive and it’ll absorb more than just the CBD in topical creams, gels and oils. Check the ingredients label to make sure you’re not applying something you’re allergic to or something that, if absorbed, can interact with medications. If you’re unsure, talk to your doctor.
How oral CBD works for muscle soreness and pain
While topical CBD only offers localized relief, oral CBD should have a systemic effect if the product is potent and reliable, Titus says. Oral CBD works just the same as topical CBD, but on a much larger scale, because it enters your bloodstream and can reach cannabinoid receptors throughout your entire body.
Oral CBD is believed to have strong anti-inflammatory effects, and as inflammation is the root of most pain, it makes perfect sense that ingesting CBD could offer relief from inflammation-related pain, including muscle aches and joint pain.
Keep in mind that the majority of studies on the effects of CBD on soreness and pain to date have been small-scale; most large studies have been conducted on animals, and those results may not translate to humans. There’s a long way to go until all the effects of CBD — taken orally or applied topically — are confirmed.
It’s also worth knowing that the Food and Drug Administration has yet to approve CBD as a food additive or dietary supplement. The agency has concerns about the safety of ingested CBD due to the lack of large-scale, long-term studies in humans, and has concluded that there isn’t enough evidence to declare CBD safe to consume. Regardless, oral CBD is widely available and legal in many states. Talk to a health professional about oral CBD if you’re interested in using it for muscle soreness or any other type of pain.
Should you use topical or oral CBD for soreness?
Whether you should use topical or oral CBD for pain and soreness depends on the source and intensity of your pain. Based on the above research and comments from Medical Marijuana’s Titus, here’s a look at common uses of CBD and which type will best help.
CBD for post-workout muscle soreness: A high-quality topical CBD should help treat temporary muscle soreness from workouts, Titus says. One recent study found that oral CBD can also reduce muscle soreness when taken immediately after a workout.
CBD for chronic muscle pain: Topical CBD can help during flare-ups, but you’re better off taking oral CBD for systemic pain. A combination can be especially helpful, Titus says. Ingesting CBD helps relieve pain from the inside out, while applying topical cream can quiet particularly tender areas.
CBD for joint pain: Topical CBD likely won’t reach cannabinoid receptors in your joints no matter how potent. Oral CBD is more likely to help people with pain from arthritis and other joint conditions. People with pain from fibromyalgia will also benefit more from ingestible CBD, Titus says.
CBD for general muscle tightness and tension: For general muscle tightness (such as tension in the neck from a long day at your desk), high-quality topical CBD can offer much-needed temporary relief.
Overall, the effectiveness of CBD varies depending on the product, the intended use and the person. Some people find CBD helpful while others don’t notice much of an effect, whether they take it orally or apply it topically. It might take a lot of research and experimentation until you find a CBD product that works for you.
Other ways to treat muscle soreness and pain
If you’re not ready to hop on the CBD bandwagon, try these other methods for relieving sore and tight muscles :
- Compression therapy
- Far-infrared therapy
- Percussive therapy
- Foam rolling
- Heat therapy
The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.