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How Cannabis Works for Pain

While cannabis has been widely recognized as a potential analgesic agent, the science behind its pain-relieving activity is not fully understood.

While cannabis has been widely recognized as a potential analgesic agent, the science behind its pain-relieving activity is not fully understood. This may be partly because cannabinoids simultaneously interact with more than one receptor at a time, and monitoring the activity of these receptors is almost impossible for now.

As we keep exploring the world of cannabis medicine, scientists have identified that cannabinoids possess several health potentials by interacting with receptors in the body. Contrary to popular belief, cannabinoid activity is not limited to the endocannabinoid system. Scientists have identified the interaction of cannabinoids and other receptors that may be directly linked to their therapeutic benefits. It is the combined activity of cannabinoids and these receptors (cannabinoid and non-cannabinoid receptors) that promotes the analgesic effect most users tend to experience. 

Although there are several debates on the possible analgesic role of cannabinoids, scientists have reported that cannabis can reduce pain by;

  1. Reducing the sensation of pain: 

This happens when cannabinoids inhibit the release of neurotransmitters and neuropeptides from presynaptic nerve endings. It is pertinent to note that the transmission of pain signals across the synapse involves several neurotransmitters, such as glutamate, neuropeptides, neurotrophic factors, and GABA. These neurotransmitters are released by glial cells and transmit pain to the brain. By blocking/inhibiting their activity, cannabinoids can limit the number of signals the brain interprets as pain. Furthermore, research has shown how cannabinoids block peripheral nerve pain in experimental animals. 

  1. Modulating the excitability of postsynaptic neurons

Cannabinoids like THC can suppress the release of neurotransmitters via their interaction with CB1 receptors. There are also hypotheses on how CBD and other cannabinoids like THCV, CBC, CBG, and CBN may interfere with serotonin and glycine receptors directly involved in pain relief. This modulatory activity of cannabinoids can lead to pain relief.

  1. Activating descending inhibitory pain pathways 

Humans exhibit different pain thresholds. How we perceive pain is directly proportional to the sensitivity of pain receptors and the ability of our central nervous system to process the stimuli as pain.  The descending inhibitory pain pathway allows organisms to function enough to respond to pain. This happens by reducing the pain signal through neuronal inhibition. Researchers have identified that cannabinoids like THC often interact with the descending inhibitory pathways by activating cannabinoid receptors which, in turn, reduces the sensation of pain in the neurons or nociceptors. 

  1. Reducing neural inflammation 

Neural inflammation is one of the major causes of chronic pain. In most cases, neuronal inflammations are transcribed as pain. During cannabis administration, the anti-inflammatory role of cannabinoids may inhibit this reaction, thus leaving the user painless or feeling reduced pain. During the process, cannabinoids will deal with the root cause of the inflammation rather than numbing the pain. This is one of the reasons people are abandoning some over-the-counter prescription analgesic agents for cannabinoids. 

Important things to note about cannabis and pain 

  1. Cannabinoids are more effective for chronic pain than acute pain. Chronic pain happens at receptor levels in contrast to acute pain. 
  2. Full-spectrum cannabinoids have a better chance of promoting pain relief than cannabis isolates. This is because the synergistic relationships between cannabinoids activate more than one receptor. 


Regardless of the interaction mechanism, cannabinoids have excellent promise in pain relief. The nerves responsible for detecting pain are richly supplied with cannabinoid receptors, thus, explaining why cannabinoids can block peripheral nerve pain in animals. 

Freelance Cannabis Writer and Content Strategist | I add fun to the complexities of cannabis science | Speaker at the 2022 Emerald Conference | Sports Cannabis Contributor Writer

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