Arthritis can be one of the most frustrating illnesses to live with. Simple tasks like opening a jar, standing up after sitting, and walking around a grocery store can become almost unbearable due to chronic pain. Few treatments have provided effective relief for arthritis sufferers, forcing patients to rely on painkillers, anti-inflammatory medications, and even chemotherapy drugs to manage symptoms. Many patients are turning to cannabis for effective relief without harmful side effects. But, does cannabis really treat arthritis pain and inflammation? Research suggests that it can.
Cannabis and rheumatoid arthritis pain
Recent research suggests that cannabis not only eases arthritis pain, but the herb can calm the immune system and ease related symptoms. Here’s everything you want to know about cannabis and rheumatoid arthritis.
What is rheumatoid arthritis?
Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA) is an autoimmune disorder. The body attacks itself as if it were fending off bacterial and viral invaders. An overactive immune system breaks down the soft tissues in your joints and surrounding your bones. This immune response causes excess inflammation, which then leads to tissue deterioration, scarring, and significant pain over time.
Symptoms of RA go well beyond aching joints and arthritis pain. As with most autoimmune diseases, chronic inflammation, and an aggravated immune system can have wide sweeping effects on the body. Autoimmune diseases are comparable to having permanent flu, only a whole lot worse. Other than stiff, aching joints, here are a few additional RA symptoms:
- Injuries that never seem to heal
- Numbing and tingling in hands and feet
- Eye issues
- Morning stiffness
- Locked joints
- Gastrointestinal issues
- Lung disease
Unchecked inflammation can create havoc in the body. When you have an injury or the common cold, inflammation is part of a healthy bodily response. Yet, rampant swelling from autoimmune disease is a different story. When the body is in an inflamed state for a prolonged period of time, it ages more rapidly and basically begins to fall apart.
Patients with rheumatoid arthritis are overwhelmed with inflammation. This is where cannabis can help. The herb is full of inflammation-fighting compounds. In 2014, researchers from the University of South Carolina found that psychoactive THC dampens the immune system and deactivates inflammatory proteins.
Older research from 2003 tested non-psychoactive CBD on rats induced with an arthritis-mimicking condition. After injecting the rodents with specific pro-inflammatory compounds, they treated the creatures with an oral dose of CBD. Cannabidiol decreased inflammation in a time and dose-dependant fashion. CBD continued to reduce inflammatory markers after three consecutive days of treatment.
Cannabis boosts the endocannabinoid system
The endocannabinoid system (ECS) is a large network of cell receptors in the body. The ECS has an influence over a wide variety of bodily functions, including the immune system, pain, appetite, mood, and sleep. When you consume cannabis, compounds in the plant engage with this system and change the way your body regulates all of these functions.
One 2013 study published in Rheumatology discovered something fascinating about the endocannabinoid system in RA patients. Those with arthritis had more CB2 cannabinoid receptors on their cells than those suffering from other forms of arthritis. In this case, the CB2 receptor is involved in inflammation control. For some reason, the body is not effectively able to turn off inflammation in rheumatoid arthritis.
Both CBD and THC engage with CB2 receptors. THC directly connects with the receptor, triggering an anti-inflammatory response. CBD increases the amount of endocannabinoids (our human version of THC) in the body, engaging CB2 receptors in a different way. These qualities are what give the herb potent immune-regulating properties.
By directly engaging with the endocannabinoid system, cannabis taps into the body’s own system of self-repair. The herb calms inflammation and reigns in the immune system, giving your nerves and tissue some time to recover.
Cannabis eases arthritis pain
Pain is one of the most debilitating aspects of RA. Fortunately, there is strong evidence that cannabis is one of the best chronic pain management tools around. In a 2010 clinical trial, researchers found that three puffs of cannabis a day can reduce arthritis pain.
The Canadian study was a randomized, controlled trial involved smoked cannabis. While the study looked specifically at neuropathic pain, the results are promising for a variety of different pain conditions. In their abstract, the authors explained:
A single inhalation of 25 mg of 9.4% tetrahydrocannabinol herbal cannabis three times daily for five days reduced the intensity of pain, improved sleep and was well tolerated.
This human study is corroborated by another study in rodents. The rodent study looked at both inflammatory and neuropathic pain. In the study, rodent models were treated with CBD. Inflammatory markers and pain symptoms were then monitored.
The researchers found that CBD was effective in reducing inflammation and pain signals, leading them to conclude that the cannabinoid has potential in the treatment of chronic pain.
Cannabis improves related symptoms
Many RA patients suffer from chronic fatigue and gastrointestinal problems. Both of these ailments are things that the herb can address. A good sativa-dominant strain (like White Widow) can provide the energy equivalent to a strong cup of coffee. If you’re experiencing insomnia from pain, indica-dominant strains can help you catch up on much-needed sleep.
At the same time, compounds like THC and CBD engage with endocannabinoid receptors in the GI tract to calm inflammation in the gut. Reducing inflammation in the gut relieves irritable bowel symptoms and allows your body to better absorb nutrients from food. Proper nutrient absorption is critical in autoimmune disease, as nutrient deficiency can make symptoms a lot worse.
Cannabis and osteoarthritis
While cannabis works wonders for easing rheumatoid arthritis symptoms, the herb helps those with osteoarthritis in an entirely different way. The fact that the same natural compounds show promise for both of these conditions is a sign that this is not your ordinary herb.
What is osteoarthritis?
Osteoarthritis is one of the most common forms of arthritis out there. While RA is an autoimmune disease, osteoarthritis is strongly tied to aging and excessive wear and tear. In osteoarthritis, the supple cartilage that protects bones and joints slowly wears away. Over time, you’re left with bones that grind together as there is no longer any protective cushioning.
Seniors and aging adults are most often affected by osteoarthritis. Obesity, previous joint injuries, genetics, and constant overuse also contribute to the condition. Unfortunately, osteoarthritis is a degenerative disease and will worsen over time. Symptoms of osteoarthritis include:
- Grinding sensation in joints
- Bone spurs
- Loss of flexibility
There are no known cures for osteoarthritis. Sadly, there are also no approved medications that stimulate bone growth in patients with degrading cartilage.
Cannabis and bone loss
In 2009, a research team found that the effects of cannabis change dramatically as we age. This is a great sign for those with age-related osteoarthritis. The study found that the herb protects against age-related bone loss from conditions like osteoporosis. As mentioned earlier, loss of cartilage is the primary culprit behind osteoarthritis.
The scientists noticed that when they treated mice with a compound that activated the CB1 receptor, bone loss slowed down in older, aging mice. The CB1 receptor is the primary binding site for psychoactive THC. The compound prevented excess fat accumulation in the bone, which happens during osteoporosis. This prevented bone material from wasting away.
But, that’s not all. As early as 2005, scientists at the University of Bonn in Germany discovered that CB2 receptors may play a critical role in whether or not you develop bone weakness as you grow older.
In the study, researchers monitored the bone dentistry of genetically engineered mice missing CB1 or CB2 receptors and found that mice without these receptors were more likely to have bone weakness, a precursor to both osteoporosis and osteoarthritis. Further, mice without CB2 receptors showed accelerated age-related bone and cartilage deterioration in comparison to their CB1 deficient counterparts.
Yet another study published earlier this year found that synthetic cannabinoids may help prevent cartilage loss in osteoarthritis. Synthetic cannabinoids deactivated enzyme proteins crucial to osteoarthritis. Drastically oversimplifying, calming down these proteins slows down cartilage destruction.
Cannabis and bone growth
At this point, several studies have looked into the ways in which cannabis slows bone loss. But, can the herb actually help bones regrow? Research from Tel Aviv Univeristy and Hebrew University in Israel suggests that it might. The research looked at the effects of CBD on bone fractures. They found that, yes, CBD actually did speed up the healing process and helped bones regrow. Dr. Yankel Gabet explains,
We found that CBD alone makes bones stronger during healing, enhancing the maturation of the collagenous matrix, which provides the basis for new mineralization of bone tissue. After being treated with CBD, the healed bone will be harder to break in the future.
Additional research from 2010 suggests that cannabinoids may be useful in cartilage engineering. Specifically, the study suggests that the endocannabinoid system increases the survival and differentiation of a certain type of stem cell. These stem cells can create cartilage material.
At this point, the research is experimental at best. But, it adds to the long list of potential medical benefits of cannabis. Should this hypothesis hold true, osteoarthritis patients could be looking at cannabinoid-grown cartilage in the future.
Cannabis reduces osteoarthritis pain
This is perhaps one of the most important parts of osteoarthritis treatment. Are cannabinoids actually effective in reducing pain caused by grinding bones? A research team from the University of Nottingham thinks so. Scientists treated osteoarthritis animal models with a synthetic cannabinoid. The cannabinoid targeted the CB2 receptor, the same receptor that helps control inflammation in rheumatoid arthritis patients. The CB2 receptor also helps manage the sensation of bodily pain.
The cannabinoid targeted the CB2 receptor, the same receptor that helps control inflammation in rheumatoid arthritis patients. The CB2 receptor also helps manage the sensation of bodily pain.
When researchers activated the CB2 receptor, pain signals decreased. After success with rodents, they turned to humans. They noticed that the spinal cord tissue contained CB2 receptors. This is important because the spinal cord is one of the primary pain messengers in the body. Nerves in the spinal cord relay pain messages to the brain.
The researchers also noticed that the amount of CB2 recpetors in the spinal cord is related to the severity of the arthritis. One of the study authors, Victoria Chapman, explains:
This finding is significant, as spinal and brain pain signalling pathways are known to make a major contribution to pain associated with osteoarthritis. These new data support the further evaluation of the selective cannabinoid-based interventions for the treatment of osteoarthritis pain.
Using cannabis as medicine for arthritis pain
After all of that science, how do you actually use cannabis as arthritis pain treatment? Unfortunately, there are no clinical guidelines since the mainstream medical community is still on the fence about the herb. But, there are a few tips and tricks that may be useful to you.
Strains for arthritis pain
Both THC and CBD have potential when it comes to treating arthritis pain. So, you really have quite a few options to choose from. The strains below are all thought to be good for pain management, though the only way to tell whether or not they’ll work in your particular body is through trial and error. To get you started, here are a few suggestions:
- White Widdow (High-THC, daytime)
- Afghan Kush (High-THC, nighttime)
- Cannatonic (High-CBD, anytime)
- Harlequin (High-CBD, daytime)
You might also want to take a look at strains on these lists:
If smoking or vaporizing isn’t for you, try cannabis oils. These work well in patients that have a history of lung problems, as there’s no need to inhale anything.
Cannabis topicals are absolutely essential for any kind of joint or bodily pain. These cannabis-infused skin creams and balms provide a healthy dose of cannabinoid medicines directly to a localized area. This fights pain and inflammation directly at the source.
Most medical and recreational dispensaries have a topical of some sort, but you can also make your own. Here are a few resources on topicals for you to check out:
- DIY Cannabis Coconut Oil
- How To Make Topicals
- Skin Deep: The Surprising Benefits Of Using Cannabis Cream
Raw cannabis juicing
Many rheumatoid arthritis patients have a lot of success with green juicing. To kick your juicing routine up a notch, try throwing in some raw cannabis flower or fan leaves. Raw cannabis juices and smoothies are loaded with anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory compounds. You also reap the benefit of cannabinoid acids.
Cannabinoid acids are the precursors to THC, CBD, and other cannabinoids. When you consume cannabis raw, you actually get a much, much larger dose of these vital nutrients than you would if you simply smoked or vaporized the herb.
For more information on the benefits of dietary cannabis, take a look at this article here.
A personal story of cannabis treating arthritis pain
To close us off with some words of wisdom from a patient, Marena Collins tells audiences why she made the switch to cannabis for her rheumatoid arthritis. She explains,
I have arthritis and I am unable to take any of the anti-inflammatories. There’s one medication that I can take that I may be able to take long-term, [or] I may not be able to take long-term. The only other medication there is is cannabis. Now, I didn’t know how bad my arthritis until until few months ago.
For some reason, I ran out of cannabis. I thought my arthritis was some aches and pains here and there. But, when I ran out of cannabis, slowly, over time, I thought my body was going into rigor mortis. I was waiting for somebody to come in and tell me I was dead. – Collins
Additional stimulus for your endocannabinoid system
If you’re an arthritis patient new to medical cannabis, beginning treatment with the herb can be a little confusing. For more information on how cannabis works and additional ways to enhance your endocannabinoid system, take a look at these articles:
- The Endocannabinoid System For Dummies
- Enhancing Your Endocannabinoid System with Omega-3 Fatty Acids
- How Cannabinoids Interact with the Body
Has cannabis helped you with your arthritis pain? Share your story with us on social media or in the comments below. We’d love to hear from you!