How Does Medical Marijuana Affect Pain?

Updated on September 7, 2020

Study after study shows that CBD, THC or a combination of both help sufferers of chronic pain and other pain-inducing conditions manage their pain. By now, most every state with a medical marijuana program allows those suffering from various types of pain to utilize the drug to improve their lifestyle and well-being — and you might currently manage your pain condition using cannabis products.

However, knowing that medical marijuana works to manage pain is not the same as knowing how it works. Here’s a quick look at how THC, CBD and other compounds within cannabis mitigate the experience of pain.

The Endogenous Cannabinoid System

To understand what cannabis is doing inside your body, you need to understand the endogenous cannabinoid system, which is most often shortened to the endocannabinoid system or the ECS. Discovered in the early 1990s in research on THC and CBD, the ECS still isn’t particularly well-understood, but it clearly doesn’t exist merely for the experience of producing a marijuana high. In fact, the ECS seems to be an incredibly old; all animals, including invertebrates like leeches and nematodes, have endocannabinoid systems.

Continuing study seems to indicate that the system is responsible for various critical processes around the body. Most importantly, it seems that the ECS manages homeostasis, which is internal balance despite changes to the external environment, but the ECS also facilitates communication, development and regulation of various bodily systems, namely the central nervous system, the digestive system and the reproductive system.

As yet, scientists have identified two different receptors within the ECS: CB1 and CB2. These receptors bind to different molecules — most often endocannabinoids generated by the ECS in response to some environmental change, but sometimes other molecules introduced into the body, like cannabinoids. CB1 receptors are primarily located in the brain and central nervous system, with some receptors in the peripheral nervous system, immune system, reproductive system and digestive system, as well. In contrast, CB2 receptors are more prevalent in peripheral tissue as opposed to neurons; some CB2 receptors are located in the brain, but most are within organs of the immune system and gastrointestinal system.

What does all this have to do with pain?

The endogenous cannabinoid system seems to be a primary source of pain sensation within the body; without the ECS, it is unlikely that you would experience pain the same way, if at all. There are several endocannabinoids associated with pain sensation, but the most important is anandamide, which appears when the body is in pain, stressed, depressed, hungry and experiencing other discomforts. Called the “bliss” molecule, this endocannabinoid tries to mitigate pain and discomfort, but the body rarely synthesizes it in sufficient quantities to properly manage chronic conditions, like arthritis, multiple sclerosis and more. That’s why medical marijuana is so useful.

Cannabinoids and Their Effects

While researchers know of over 100 cannabinoids, there are only about eight that seem to have any significant effects on the human body, and of those, only two have been appropriately researched and are somewhat understood: THC and CBD. When you go to your 24-hour dispensary to find products to manage your pain, you are looking for goods with one or both of these compounds.

THC, or delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, is the cannabinoid most famous for getting users high. THC has the same structure as anandamide and other endocannabinoids, allowing it to interact with the ECS effortlessly. When it enters your bloodstream, THC rushes to and overwhelms your CB1 receptors, causing the same effects of endocannabinoids but to a greater intensity. As a result, THC affects your homeostasis, throwing your body into imbalance. This can be exceedingly useful if your typical balanced state leaves you uncomfortable, in pain. Yet, you should also expect to feel the other effects of THC, such as giddiness and euphoria, difficulty concentrating and thinking critically and nagging hunger.

Meanwhile, CBD, or cannabidiol, is a much more subtle compound — so subtle, in fact, that scientists aren’t entirely sure how it affects the ECS. Previously, researchers believed that CBD bound to CB2 receptors, mirroring THC’s behavior around CB1 receptors. However, there is little evidence of CBD binding; instead, CBD seems to influence the ECS to produce more beneficial neurotransmitters, like anandamide, which helps the body to heal itself.

Undoubtedly, more research is warranted to better understand not just the beneficial effects of THC and CBD but also their long-term effects, side effects and potential dangers. If CBD and/or THC is helping you manage your pain, you absolutely should continue taking advantage of their powers — but you should also stay abreast of emerging information about cannabinoids and the ECS.

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