Medical Marijuana for Pain: How It Works, Why It Works and How to Use It

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Medical Marijuana is becoming increasingly more popular among researchers, scientists and those suffering from chronic pain.

Pain is like an alarm system for your body. It indicates that something is not right in your body. Pain, due to any reason (illness or accident), is one of the most common reasons for which people seek medical consultation. But, as the pain has many causes, it may be a problem in finding out the exact cause. Besides, many causes of pain are poorly understood.

There is no effective medication for such pain, and even in cases where some relief can be given, it comes as the cost of harmful side-effects.

So, there is a constant search for better and new pain relievers. In that pursuit, the pain-relieving properties of marijuana were discovered.

Medical Marijuana is becoming increasingly more popular among researchers, scientists and those suffering from chronic pain. People are turning to this alternative medicine for relief from inflammation to soreness as well as neuropathic pain and spasticity. And why not choose cannabis over traditional pain-relievers? While over the counter meds and opioids are great at relieving pain, they also carry side effects and the latter are highly addictive. In fact, opioid-related overdoses affect thousands of people each year. In addition, a recent study found that 1over 10 million people misuse prescription opioids every year. That is why medical marijuana has become the go-to smart alternative for many.

How Does It Work: THC and CBD

Medical Marijuana contains compounds that relieve pain, nausea, and other symptoms. The two most well-known are THC and CBD. THC resembles the cannabinoid chemicals that occur naturally in the body. When people ingest or inhale THC, it stimulates the brain's cannabinoid receptors and alters the functioning of the hippocampus and orbitofrontal cortex. This activates the brain to reduce pain levels. THC is psychoactive, which means it binds to cannabinoid receptors to produce “a high”. CBD on the other hand is not psychoactive; however, it does interact with pain receptors too and is as effective (or more) as THC in relieving pain.


Over the years, studies have been conducted around the effects of marijuana on chronic pain.

  • Nerve Pain: A study in 2015 on the use of medical marijuana and cannabinoids was supported by “high quality evidence” suggesting that MMJ and cannabinoids were effective for treating many types of chronic pain including neuropathy (nerve pain).
  • Cancer: An article from The Journal of Pain in 2016 found that medical marijuana use among cancer patients resulted in a 64 percent reduction in opioid use as well as an overall improved quality of life. It also found that patients in the study used fewer medications on the whole and as a result experienced less side effects.

Smaller studies have reported benefits for other types of chronic pain. For example:

  • A Science Direct study in Israel titled, A Single Institution Experience by the Journal of Pain and Symptom Management, found that out of 17,000 people with cancer, 70 percent experienced an improvement in pain and general well-being after marijuana use.
  • An NCBI study in 2016 looked at people with chronic migraines. The study found a decrease in episodes as well as in overall frequency after use of medical marijuana.


The route of administration plays a significant role with respect to pain reduction, Medical marijuana comes in herbal, oil, as well as edible forms. It can be smoked, vaporized, ingested, taken sublingually or applied topically.

While there is still a need for more research in the area of marijuana use for chronic pain, we do know a few things about the effects as they relate to different methods of delivery. Let’s take a quick look at the most common:

  • Smoking:

When most people think of cannabis, the first picture to emerge is of people smoking it. While this has been historically the most common way, it is not the healthiest method. When a patient inhales cannabis, the majority of the cannabinoids enter the body through the lungs where they are passed along directly into your blood stream. Due to this direct exchange, consuming cannabis via inhalation has the shortest time of effect compared to other routes of entry.

  • Vaporizing

Cannabis can also be inhaled through a method known as vaporization. There are different instruments available to facilitate this method such as stationary vaporizers as well as portables vapes. When compared to smoking, vaporizing is considered healthier for the patient. There are also other advantages associated with vaporization such as more efficient cannabinoid extraction as well as a decreased exposure to toxic elements such as carbon monoxide and tar, which are factors that are present when smoking it.

  • Topicals

Cannabinoids can also be absorbed through the skin using lotions, balms, and salves in order to relieve pain and inflammation. Studies have found that the topical application of cannabinoids starts to work within minutes. The duration of the pain-relieving effects is known to last upwards of two hours.

Transdermal patches that contain cannabinoids are another similar option and are said to be more potent than lotions or salves. A transdermal patch is a medicated bandage that is applied directly to the skin to deliver cannabinoids to the body at a controlled release-rate. While not as easily or broadly available as lotions or creams, the transdermal patch has been around for decades. The onset of action is within two hours and the duration of the pain-relieving effects lasts up to a couple of days.

  • Edibles

Edibles are one of the most popular ways to use medical marijuana. They involve infusing foods, such as cookies, brownies or candies like gummies with cannabinoids. Edibles enter the blood stream after being digested in the stomach and are absorbed through the intestines. Edibles are known to have an onset of effects within thirty minutes, with peak effects around the one hour mark and a total duration of effects of around six to ten hours. This range depends on a person’s specific tolerance level and the amount being consumed. Marijuana edibles offer an easy way to take the medicine and have a much longer duration period than smoking or vaporizing – two big advantages.

  • Sublingual cannabis

Sublingual administration involves placing a drug under the tongue. These types of products are the preferred method for many cancer patients who take full extract CBD oil. Direct application involves placing a precise amount of the product under the tongue which allows the cannabinoids to enter the bloodstream faster, through the vessel-rich tissues within the sublingual cavity.

New research every day points to the effectiveness of medical marijuana for pain as well as the many advantages over opioids and over the counter medication. For one, the side effects of medical marijuana are typically minimal especially when compared to that of opioid’s side effects. Research and regulation are still being developed in order to formulate the exact composition and quality to best alleviate specific types of chronic pain. It is advisable to always ‘start low and go slow’ as it relates to dosing. Those who are interested in finding out more about the many health benefits of medical marijuana as well as the risks associated with it should discuss options with their doctor in order to ensure that they obtain their medications legally and from a reputable source.

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