Cannabis vs. CBD for Chronic Pain: Is There a Difference?

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A recently published study commissioned by the U.S. government seems to show positive evidence in support of using cannabis to treat chronic pain. The study was a meta-analysis of twenty-five previous studies looking into the same topic. Interestingly enough, while medical cannabis products containing higher amounts of THC seem to help chronic pain, treating with CBD is another story. So what’s the difference?

Note that the study didn’t come right out and say that CBD is ineffective as a pain treatment. The researchers only concluded that they had insufficient data to say one way or another. On the other hand, data regarding THC treatment was enough for them to draw their conclusions about short term pain relief.

The Big 2 Cannabinoids

Cannabis plants contain more than a hundred cannabinoids and terpenes. CBD and THC are the ‘big two cannabinoids’ in terms of popularity and overall knowledge. They are also the two cannabinoids that sell the most. They differ in quite a few ways. Most notably, THC has an intoxicating effect while CBD does not.

Both cannabinoids interact with the human endocannabinoid system following ingestion. How they interact determines what a patient experiences when using either one. Curiously, the medical cannabis community has had to rely mainly on anecdotal evidence to make recommendations about treating pain. Most of that evidence points to THC as the cannabinoid pain patients want.

It could be that THC relieves pain through it sedating effects; it could be that THC somehow blocks or modulates pain signals. We just don’t know because the data isn’t there. As for CBD, there isn’t even much evidence suggesting it is an effective pain treatment.

Type I and Type II Strains

Utahmarijuana.org is an organization that helps Utah patients obtain their medical cannabis cards. They say that chronic pain is one of the leading conditions patients list on their applications. They also say that patients are best served by looking for cannabis products made with either Type I or Type II plants.

A Type I cannabis strain has more THC than CBD. Therefore, THC is the dominant cannabinoid. A Type II strain has balanced amounts of THC and CBD. Type III strains are CBD-dominant; they are rarely recommended for pain relief. Instead, the professionals recommend the first two types. What is the common element? THC.

It is also worth noting that different strains of the same type may have different amounts of THC. Products derived from them could very well have different terpene profiles as well. That leaves patients in a position of having to experiment with different products to find something that works for them.

Different Types of Pain

If all this variation is not enough, chronic pain patients also need to consider the causes of their pain. The limited amount of clinical data we do have suggests that cannabis does offer relief from neuropathic pain. This is pain caused by nerve damage. Does cannabis work as well to treat cancer pain, pain caused by soft tissue injuries, and so forth?

Our knowledge of cannabis as a pain reliever is admittedly limited. But as time goes on, new data looks more and more encouraging. That data points to cannabis products with THC as opposed to those with only CBD. The reasons behind it could be as simple as how the two cannabinoids interact with the endocannabinoid system.

If you are looking to treat chronic pain with cannabis, speak your doctor or pharmacist about THC and CBD. One or both could end up helping you find the relief you are looking for.