Cannabidiol, or CBD, is a new medical treatment that may be effective for back pain. It has relatively few side effects and does not come with the high associated with marijuana. People with arthritis may consider CBD products for pain relief. Learn what science and experts say about CBD’s benefits, risks, different ways the product can be used and how to be a smart shopper. CBD, a non-psychoactive component in cannabis, is emerging as a promising pharmaceutical agent to treat pain and other conditions. Unfortunately, few studies in humans have examined its effectiveness, and the cannabis industry’s profit motive is driving a wave of dubious claims about what CBD can do.
Understanding CBD (Cannabidiol) for Back Pain
Cannabidiol, commonly referred to as CBD, is a new and relatively understudied treatment for pain, including back pain. Studies suggest it may help relieve inflammation, which is often a factor in chronic back pain. 1
CBD is available in many forms; topical creams and gels have shown promising results for inflammation and neuropathy, which may make them a good option for back and neck pain. 2
CBD requires more research in order to prove and explain its effectiveness as well as to better understand potential side effects (especially long-term) and potential drug interactions.
What Is CBD?
CBD oil is derived from a plant called cannabis sativa. The plant has over 100 chemical compounds, called cannabinoids, that have a range of effects, including anti-inflammatory and analgesic (pain relieving) qualities.
The cannabis sativa plant has two main varieties that are grown for specific purposes:
- THC content. THC is the compound associated with the “high” feeling of marijuana use.
- Industrial (non-drug) uses. This form of the plant contains trace amounts of THC (less than .03%) and can be used to make paper, clothing, and some building material. This variation of the cannabis plant is called hemp.
While CBD is present in both varieties, many of the CBD products available to consumers are from the hemp plant. CBD does not come with the high or psychogenic effects of marijuana.
Ways CBD Treats Back Pain
Research indicates that CBD may reduce back pain by:
- Reducing inflammation 3
- Combating anxiety, often associated with long-lasting or chronic back pain 4
- Helping with sleep and improving overall state of relaxation 5
Some studies suggest that CBD can have an effect on how an individual perceives pain, but more robust research is needed. CBD is generally considered a full-body treatment, which means that it does not target back pain specifically—except in the case of topical products—but contributes to an overall feeling of relaxation and pain relief.
Advocates of CBD believe it can be used to treat a range of conditions in addition to back pain, such as anxiety-related disorders. 5
Potential Risks and Side Effects of CBD
Cannabidiol, even in high amounts, is generally safe. Side effects from CBD may include:
- Dry mouth
- Low blood pressure
More severe side effects, while rare, include:
- Mental confusion
As with other natural products, there is potential for adverse reactions when taken with other medications, especially those that come with grapefruit warnings, such as certain blood thinners. These warnings indicate that certain medications should not be taken with products containing grapefruit.
CBD use prior to surgery
Before having surgery, all cannabis use, including CBD and marijuana, should be disclosed to the surgeon or anesthesiologist. A recent study suggests that cannabis use may have an effect on medications used to sedate patients. 6
How Do CBD Gummies Help Pain
Online resource that helps patients better understand health coverage options, choose the right coverage, manage the denial process and reduce health care costs.
CBD for Arthritis Pain: What You Should Know
Learn what the science says about the risks and benefits of CBD use for arthritis and what to shop for.
What is CBD? CBD, short for cannabidiol, is an active compound found in the cannabis plant. CBD is not intoxicating but may cause some drowsiness. The CBD in most products is extracted from hemp, a variety of cannabis that has only traces (up to 0.3%) of THC, the active compound that gets people high.
Does CBD work for arthritis? Animal studies have suggested that CBD has pain-relieving and anti-inflammatory properties, but these effects have not been validated in quality studies in humans. Anecdotally, some people with arthritis who have tried CBD, but not all, report noticeable pain relief, sleep improvement and/or anxiety reduction.
Is CBD safe to use? Research evaluating the safety of CBD is underway. At this point very little is known. So far, no serious safety concerns have been associated with moderate doses. CBD is thought to have the potential to interact with some drugs commonly taken by people with arthritis. Talk to your doctor before trying CBD if you take any of the following: corticosteroids (such as prednisone), tofacitinib (Xeljanz), naproxen (Aleve), celecoxib (Celebrex), tramadol (Ultram), certain antidepressants, including amitriptyline (Elavil), citalopram (Celexa), fluoxetine (Prozac), mirtazapine (Remeron), paroxetine (Paxil), sertraline (Zoloft), and certain medications for fibromyalgia, including gabapentin (Neurontin) and pregabalin (Lyrica).
Are CBD products legal? CBD products derived from hemp are no longer considered Schedule I drugs under the federal Controlled Substances Act, but they still remain in a legal gray zone. There are changes underway on federal and state levels that will ultimately clarify the laws and regulations related to CBD-based products and sales. Despite that, they’re widely available in nearly every state and online. People who want to use CBD should check their state laws.
Taking the First Step
Should I give CBD a try? Without quality clinical studies on CBD and arthritis, doctors have not been able to say who might benefit from CBD, at what dose and in which form, who likely won’t benefit and who should avoid it. Still, there is agreement on several points:
- CBD is not a substitute for disease-modifying treatment for inflammatory arthritis.
- Patients who are interested in trying CBD should first talk to the health care provider who treats their arthritis before trying CBD. Together, they can review what has worked or not worked in the past, whether there are other options to try first, how to do a trial run, what to watch for and when to return for a follow-up visit to evaluate the results. Keep a symptom and dose diary to track effects.
- Quality CBD products can be expensive, especially when used for prolonged periods. To avoid wasting money, be completely sure that the product is truly having a positive effect on symptoms.
What type of product should I consider? CBD-based products can be taken orally, applied to the skin or inhaled. There are pros and cons for each.
By mouth. CBD that is swallowed, whether in capsules, food or liquid, is absorbed through the digestive tract. Absorption is slow and dosing is tricky due to the delayed onset of effect (one to two hours), unknown effects of stomach acids, recent meals and other factors.
Capsules can work for daily use after a safe, effective capsule dose has been established. Experts discourage taking CBD via edibles, like gummies and cookies, because dosing is unreliable, and they are appealing to children but do not come in childproof containers. Like any medicine, edibles should be secured out of sight and reach of children.
CBD can also be absorbed directly into the bloodstream by holding liquid from a spray or tincture (a liquid dosed by a dropper) under the tongue (sublingual) for 60 to 120 seconds. The taste may not be pleasant. Effects may be felt within 15 to 45 minutes.
On the skin. Topical products, like lotions and balms, are applied to the skin over a painful joint. Whether these products deliver CBD below the skin is unknown. Topical products may also include common over-the-counter ingredients such as menthol, capsaicin or camphor, making it difficult to determine if a positive effect is due to the CBD or another ingredient.
Inhaled. CBD can be inhaled via a vaporizing, or vape, pen. However, inhalation of vapor oils and chemical byproducts carry unknown risks, particularly for people with inflammatory arthritis. For this reason and because the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is investigating vaping in association with widespread hospitalizations and deaths from severe pulmonary disease, vaping is not recommended.
How much CBD should I use? While there are no established clinical guidelines, the medical experts consulted by the Arthritis Foundation recommend the following for adults:
- When preparing to take a liquid form, be aware that the CBD extract is mixed with a carrier oil, so there are two measures to know: the amount of the liquid product to take (the dose) and the amount of CBD in each dose.
- Go low and slow. Start with just a few milligrams of CBD in sublingual form twice a day. If relief is inadequate after one week, increase the dose by that same amount. If needed, go up in small increments over several weeks. If you find relief, continue taking that dose twice daily to maintain a stable level of CBD in the blood.
- If CBD alone doesn’t work and you are in a state where medical or recreational marijuana is legal, talk to your doctor about taking CBD with a very low-dose THC product. Be aware that THC, even at low levels, may get you high, creating cognitive, motor and balance issues. Try THC-containing products at home or at night first, so you can sleep off any unwanted effects.
- After several weeks, if you don’t find relief with CBD alone or with a combination of CBD and very low THC, CBD may not be right for you.
- If you experience any unwanted side effects when using a CBD product, immediately discontinue use and inform your doctor.
What to Look for When Shopping
There is good reason to be a cautious shopper. CBD products are largely unregulated in the U.S. market. Independent testing has shown mislabeling and lack of quality control. The biggest issues are strength of CBD (significantly more or less than the label says), the presence of undeclared THC, and contamination with pesticides, metals and solvents. Here’s what to look for:
- Find products manufactured in the U.S. with ingredients grown domestically.
- Choose products made by companies that follow good manufacturing practices established by the FDA for pharmaceuticals or dietary supplements (a voluntary quality standard because CBD products are not federally regulated under either category) or required by the state where they are manufactured.
- Buy from companies that test each batch and provide a certificate of analysis from an independent lab that uses validated standardized testing methods approved by the American Herbal Pharmacopoeia (AHP), the U.S. Pharmacopeia (USP), or the Association of Official Agricultural Chemists (AOAC).
- Avoid companies that claim their products have disease benefits.
- Be aware that marketers and people behind retail counters are not health professionals; they are salespeople. That’s why your doctor is your best source for guidance and monitoring when using an unregulated product.
Our gratitude to the following experts for their guidance and review:
Kevin Boehnke, PhD, a researcher at the Chronic Pain and Fatigue Research Center at the University of Michigan, focuses on medical cannabis as an analgesic and opioid substitute in chronic pain.
Daniel Clauw, MD, a professor of anesthesiology, rheumatology and psychiatry at the University of Michigan and director of the Chronic Pain and Fatigue Research Center, leads research on arthritis pain and fibromyalgia, and the effects of cannabis, particularly CBD, in pain.
Mary-Ann Fitzcharles, MD, an associate professor of medicine in the Division of Rheumatology at McGill University in Montreal, Quebec, conducts research on pain and rheumatic diseases. She is the lead author of the 2019 Canadian Rheumatology Association (CRA) position statement for medical cannabis.
During Pain Awareness Month in September and all year long, we’ve got you covered with unique pain management tools and resources you won’t find anywhere else.
CBD for chronic pain: The science doesn’t match the marketing
If you ask health care providers about the most challenging condition to treat, chronic pain is mentioned frequently. By its nature, chronic pain is a complex and multidimensional experience. Pain perception is affected by our unique biology, our mood, our social environment, and past experiences. If you or a loved one is suffering from chronic pain, you already know the heavy burden.
People are looking for novel, nonaddictive ways to treat pain
Given the ongoing challenges of chronic pain management coupled with the consequences of the opioid epidemic, pain management practitioners and their patients are searching for effective and safer alternatives to opioids to alleviate pain. With the legalization of marijuana in many states and resulting cultural acceptance of this drug for recreational and medical use, there has been an increased interest in using cannabis for a myriad of medical problems, including pain.
Cannabis (most commonly obtained from the Cannabis indica and Cannabis sativa plants) has three major components: cannabinoids, terpenoids, and flavonoids. While there are over a hundred different cannabinoids, the two major components are tetrahydrocannabional (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD). Historically more attention has been paid to the psychoactive (euphoric “getting high”) component of the cannabis plant, THC; there have been fewer scientific studies on the medical use of CBD, a non-psychoactive component of the plant.
What’s the thinking behind using cannabis for chronic pain?
CBD is emerging as a promising pharmaceutical agent to treat pain, inflammation, seizures, and anxiety without the psychoactive effects of THC. Our understanding of the role of CBD in pain management continues to evolve, and evidence from animal studies has shown that CBD exerts its pain-relieving effects through its various interactions and modulation of the endocannabinoid, inflammatory, and nociceptive (pain sensing) systems. The endocannabinoid system consists of cannabinoid receptors that interact with our own naturally occurring cannabinoids. This system is involved in regulating many functions in the body, including metabolism and appetite, mood and anxiety, and pain perception.
What’s the research that CBD works in humans?
Given its promising results in animal models, along with its relative safety, non-psychoactive properties, and low potential for abuse, CBD is an attractive candidate to relieve pain. Unfortunately, there is a lack of human studies about the effectiveness of CBD. However, there is an abundance of commercial advertisements about the magical effects of CBD, and it is frequently presented as a cure-it-all potion that will treat everything including diabetes, depression, cancer, chronic pain, and even your dog’s anxiety!
So far, pharmaceutical CBD is only approved by the FDA as adjunct therapy for the treatment of a special and rare form of epilepsy. Currently, CBD alone is not approved for treatment of pain in the United States. But a combination medication (that contains both THC and CBD in a 1:1 ratio) was approved by Health Canada for prescription for certain types of pain, specifically central neuropathic pain in multiple sclerosis, and the treatment of cancer pain unresponsive to optimized opioid therapy. There is currently no high-quality research study that supports the use of CBD alone for the treatment of pain.
Why is CBD presented to the public this way, when it is not without risks?
Given the rapid change in the legality of cannabis coupled with the increased appetite for something new, and driven by unprecedented profit margins, the advertising for cannabinoids in general and CBD in particular has gone wild. The FDA is very clear that it is illegal to market CBD by adding it to a food or labeling it as a dietary supplement. And it warns the public about its potential side effects, as it’s often advertised in a way that may lead people to mistakenly believe using CBD “can’t hurt.” CBD can cause liver injury, and can affect the male reproductive system (as demonstrated in laboratory animal studies).
Most importantly, CBD can interact with other important medications like blood thinners, heart medications, and immunosuppressants (medications given after organ transplantation), potentially changing the levels of these important medications in the blood and leading to catastrophic results, including death. Also, more information needs to be gathered about its safety in special populations such as the elderly, children, those who are immunocompromised, and pregnant and breastfeeding women.
Many of the CBD products on the market are unregulated
In fact, the FDA has issued several warning letters to companies and individuals that market unapproved new drugs that allegedly contain CBD. The FDA has tested the chemical content of cannabinoid compounds in some of the products, and many were found to not contain the levels of CBD the manufacturers had claimed they contain.
Beware of powerful testimonials
Finally, there is anecdotal wisdom, when experiences by patients and health professionals have positive results. While the experience or medication could be beneficial, that doesn’t mean it is going to work for everyone. That’s because each and every person is unique, and what works perfectly for one patient could have no effect on another patient. This is especially true for pain, where many other factors (our mood and stress level, our environment and other medical conditions, and our previous experiences) can affect the perception of pain. Please be careful, and keep in mind that some of these incredible-sounding testimonials are merely marketing materials meant to lure consumers to buy more products, as the CBD market is expected to hit $20 billion by 2024.
The bottom line: Don’t make CBD your first or only choice for pain relief
If you or someone close to you is considering trying CBD, I would recommend Dr. Robert Shmerling’s advice about the dos and don’ts in choosing an appropriate product. Until there is high-quality scientific evidence in humans, it is difficult to make a recommendation for the regular use of CBD in chronic pain management.
About the Author
Shafik Boyaji, MD , Contributor
Dr. Boyaji earned his medical degree from University of Aleppo, Syria. He completed an Internal Medicine residency at Michigan State University and an Anesthesiology residency at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital. Currently he is in fellowship … See Full Bio
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