CBD Oil for Arthritis Pain: Does It Relieve Symptoms?
Cannabidiol oil, known as CBD oil or hemp oil, is all the rage these days, touted as a panacea for everything from cancer pain to depression and anxiety. Some research has indicated that it can relieve the pain of various forms of arthritis as well. CBD oil contains extracts from cannabis plants, which is the same plant family that marijuana (pot) comes from.
But let’s get this out of the way: CBD is not the same thing as pot and it will not get you high. The only thing the two have in common is that they are both derived from members of the cannabis family. Marijuana is the plant that contains tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the psychoactive substance that induces the “high.”
CBD is not the same thing as pot and it will not get you high.
While marijuana contains some CBD, it is grown for its THC content. The hemp plant is the one that provides the source for the majority of the CBD oil products on the market today. Hemp contains an insignificant amount of THC (less than 0.3 percent); in contrast, marijuana can contain anywhere from 5 percent to 35 percent.
Some people have started using CBD oil to help relieve pain and lower inflammation, but the jury’s still out on whether or to what degree using it can help people with arthritis. Here’s what we know so far:
CBD Oil and Arthritis Pain Relief
The mechanism responsible for CBD’s positive health effects is not entirely understood, but researchers believe that the compound attaches to receptors in the body known as cannabinoid receptors; these may, in turn, cause the body to produce natural cannabinoids.
CBD oil doesn’t affect your brain the same way that THC does. THC interacts with different receptors in the brain than does CBD. According to Healthline, CBD oil interacts with two receptors, called CB1 and CB2, which can help reduce pain and the effects of inflammation.
“These receptors are primarily involved with coordination, movement, pain, emotional output, and the immune system,” explains Faye Rim, MDD, a physiatrist and pain management specialist at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City.
CB2’s involvement in immune system could help explain why CBD oil may be helpful in people with inflammatory autoimmune forms of arthritis, like rheumatoid arthritis (RA).
Dr. Rim says some of her arthritis patients have found relief, but she points out that CBD oil is only intended for use as an adjunct to medications, not as a first-line treatment.
How Do You Use CBD for Arthritis Pain?
CBD can be taken as a liquid, a tincture, in capsules, or applied topically. You can take the capsules orally, add the liquid to foods or drinks, or apply creams with CBD to affected joints. Read more about to start using CBD products for arthritis pain.
Mild side effects of using CBD may include sleep problems or nausea. The topical CBD arthritis cream occasionally causes an allergic reaction, so test it on a small area of skin first.
Most studies on CBD and arthritis have been done on rodents, including one published in a 2017 issue of the journal Pain that suggests CBD oil may relieve joint pain in osteoarthritis. A study in a 2016 issue of Arthritis Care and Research found that CBD oil may improve pain relief, sleep, and quality of life in some rheumatoid arthritis (RA) patients, but the sample size was extremely small, making the study mostly insignificant.
As Medical News Today reports, “there a lack of scientific evidence to prove conclusively that CBD is an effective arthritis treatment for humans.” More research, especially on bigger groups of human participants, will need to be conducted to better understand how CBD oil affects arthritis symptoms like pain, inflammation, and fatigue.
“I find it’s hit or miss,” says Dr. Rim. “[CBD] helps some people and has no effect on others, but I recommend that my patients try it, as there don’t seem to be any problematic drug interactions or major side effects.”
Currently, the FDA has approved CBD oil only for use in people with two rare and severe forms of epilepsy. It is not approved for the treatment of arthritis or chronic pain.
What to Know Before You Buy CBD
Because CBD products are currently unregulated — and often imported — it is very difficult to know exactly what you’re getting, and how much of it, in any given formulation.
This lack of regulation can result in products that vary widely in quality, Marcel Bonn-Miller, PhD, an adjunct assistant professor of psychology in psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, told HealthDay News.
Furthermore, CBD is legal in most states, but not all. Make sure you understand your state’s laws before purchasing or taking CBD oil.
When recommending CBD oil to her patients, Dr. Rim says she has no specific dosages or brands in mind. “I generally refer them to a health food store and encourage them to try a small amount at first and to increase if it’s well-tolerated.”
The hope, she says, is that we will have more definitive data on dosages and quality products over time.
You should check with your doctor before trying CBD oil to make sure it’s safe for you and won’t negatively interact with any medications you take.
Do Topical CBD Products Actually Do Anything for Pain?
You don’t need me to tell you that CBD (cannabidiol) is everywhere. You can eat it, you can drink it, you can vape it, you can even bathe in it. And although there’s still plenty to learn about this fascinating little compound, fans of it claim that it has some pretty impressive benefits—particularly when it comes to managing pain.
Personally, I always keep a few jars of it at my desk to help with the shoulder and neck muscle tension inherent in a job consisting mainly of typing and holding a phone next to my face. But it turns out that the research behind these claims is pretty sparse, to say the least. Here’s what you need to know before you give topical CBD a try.
What is CBD?
Cannabidiol, commonly referred to as CBD, is a cannabinoid, a type of compound found in cannabis (marijuana). Unlike the more well-known cannabinoid THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), CBD does not produce a high.
Both THC and CBD act on a system of receptors in your body called cannabinoid receptors. You have cannabinoid receptors throughout your body and, so far, researchers have identified two major types: CB1 (found primarily in the central nervous system, including parts of the brain and spinal cord) and CB2 (found mainly in immune system tissues). Interestingly, both have been found in skin. Researchers have also found that while THC can bind to and activate both types of receptors, CBD seems to modulate and somewhat block the effects of CB1 and CB2 receptors. So, any effect that CBD has on CB receptors may actually be more related to regulating and even counteracting some of the actions of THC and other cannabinoids in the brain.
Why does the body have receptors for compounds in cannabis? Well, it doesn’t exactly. Cannabinoids like THC and CBD are similar enough to compounds that your body naturally makes, called endocannabinoids, that they can interact with this system. Normally, the endocannabinoid system is thought to play a role in a variety of functions in the body, helping to regulate things like parts of the immune system, the release of hormones, metabolism, and memory.
If you’re ingesting something that only has CBD in it and no THC, you won’t have significant effects in the brain. This is why CBD is often referred to as being “non-psychoactive,” although that’s clearly a bit of an oversimplification because it does do something to the central nervous system.
More recent research suggests that many of CBD’s effects may occur outside of CB receptors, Jordan Tishler, M.D., medical cannabis expert at InhaleMD in Boston, tells SELF. In fact, according to a recent review published in Molecules, CBD may have effects on some serotonin receptors (known to play a role in depression and anxiety), adenosine receptors (one of the neurological targets for caffeine), and even TRPV-1 receptors (more commonly associated with taste and the sensation of spiciness).
“It actually is a very promiscuous compound,” Kevin Boehnke, Ph.D., research fellow in the department of anesthesiology and the Chronic Pain and Fatigue Research Center at the University of Michigan, tells SELF. “It will bind to receptors in multiple different pathways,” which makes it difficult to know how it might cause noticeable effects.
“Cannabidiol is a super messy drug,” Ziva Cooper, Ph.D., research director of the UCLA Cannabis Research Initiative in the Jane and Terry Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior and the department of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences, tells SELF. “It has lots and lots of targets and it’s not clear how much of its effects on each target contribute to the potential pain relieving effects.”
All of this points to how hard it is to study the specific effects of CBD on its own—which might be why it’s tempting to claim that it’s the cure for everything without a whole lot of research to actually back up all of those claims.
Here’s what the research says about using CBD for pain.
The most common medical reason for which people report using CBD is to manage chronic pain, followed closely by managing arthritis or joint pain. But does it actually work?
When the National Academies of Sciences, Medicine, and Engineering evaluated decades of cannabis research, they concluded that “in adults with chronic pain, patients who were treated with cannabis or cannabinoids are more likely to experience a clinically significant reduction in pain symptoms.”
But that’s not quite as exciting for CBD as it sounds: “We don’t know cannabidiol’s effects on its own,” says Cooper, who was part of the National Academies committee that put together this report. “[The conclusions about cannabis and cannabinoids] were based on what we know about THC or THC plus cannabidiol.”
In fact, the most compelling research they found for using cannabinoids for pain came from a large review and meta-analysis published in JAMA in 2015. For the study, researchers looked at results from 79 previous studies of cannabinoids and various medical conditions, including chronic pain. However, of those studies, only four involved CBD (without THC)—none of which were looking at pain. So although we might assume that CBD is doing something to help address pain—according to the studies involving the whole cannabis plant—we don’t have great evidence to prove it.
“It might be that cannabidiol by itself is helpful for pain, but at this point we don’t know that,” Cooper says.
The studies we do have about CBD for pain are all animal studies. For example, in a 2017 study published in Pain, researchers gave rats an injection into one of their knee joints to model osteoarthritis. Rats then either received doses of CBD or saline directly into an artery in the knee joint. Results showed that, after receiving CBD, rats showed less inflammation in the joint area and fewer pain-related behaviors (like shaking or withdrawing the affected paw or not being able to bear weight in that paw) compared to those that received saline.
Another study published in 2016 in the European Journal of Pain also looked at arthritis in rats but did so with a topical formulation of CBD. After the rats received an injection into one knee joint to model arthritis, they received a gel that contained either 10 percent CBD (in four different total amounts) or 1 percent CBD (the control) on four consecutive days. The gel was massaged into the rats’ shaved backs for 30 seconds each time.
Then the researchers measured the inflammation in each rat’s knee joint, the level of CBD that made it into their bloodstream, and their pain-related behaviors. They found that the rats that were given the two highest doses of CBD showed significantly lower levels of inflammation and lower pain behavior scores compared to those that got the control. The two lower doses didn’t show much of an effect.
But if you’re reading this, you are probably not a rat, which means these results aren’t directly applicable to your life. Although we know that rats do share much of our physiology—including CB1 and CB2 receptors—these studies don’t really tell us if humans would have the same results with CBD.
“There’s really no substitute for doing proper human studies, which are difficult, expensive, and ethically complicated,” Dr. Tishler says. And we simply don’t have them for CBD and pain.
The only thing that comes close is a Phase 2 clinical trial using a proprietary CBD transdermal gel (meaning it’s meant to go through the skin into the bloodstream) in 320 patients with knee osteoarthritis over 12 weeks, which has not been peer-reviewed to date. Unfortunately, in almost all of the study’s measures of pain, those who received CBD didn’t have statistically different scores from those who got placebo. But “they found some reductions in pain and improvements in physical function,” Boehnke says.
So…is CBD cream just an expensive placebo?
It’s totally possible (and actually pretty likely) that any effect you get from a commercially available topical CBD product is a placebo effect or related to some other aspect of the product. But there are a few things going on here that are more complex than they seem.
First off, we don’t know much about the correct dose of CBD needed for a pain-relieving effect. The doses in the rat studies that were effective were pretty large (for a rat, obviously). And the human participants in the Phase 2 clinical trial we mentioned received 250 mg of synthetic CBD topically per day—as much as many consumer topical CBD products contain in a single jar.
And even though the lotion was applied topically in the rat study, it wasn’t applied locally to the knee. Instead, the researchers were really using the topical application to get it into the rats’ bloodstream, or what’s called systemic administration. But you’d likely need a different dose for it to be effective locally (if you applied it just to your aching shoulder, for instance) in a human. We have no idea what that dose should look like.