In many people’s experience, CBD is a righteous rival to some traditional therapeutic methods for anxiety, inflammation, pain, and more. In fact, recent polls show that approximately 1 in 7 adults use CBD regularly, we assume for therapeutic relief, seeing as how the naturally-derived hemp constituent doesn’t get you high. The popularity of the hemp-derived supplement is expected to continue to grow, and with it research efforts will also incline.
One important topic that experts and researchers are bringing to the table is the use of CBD for pain, perhaps even in place of traditional opioid medications. With opioid addiction at an all-time high, many researchers are desperately seeking a suitable alternative, and it turns out that the use of CBD in the place of opioids may not be so far fetched. Some evidence even suggests that CBD may be useful in the management of opioid addiction, but that doesn’t answer the biggest question: Can CBD eliminate chronic pain as well as pain killers? If so, it could be just the solution we’ve needed—one that potentially saves lives and severely dampers the heartbreaking opioid epidemic.
The Problem with Opioid Medications
Though opioids are known for their fast-acting pain-relieving effects, there are a number of problems with opioids when prescribed as a solution for chronic pain. First, it’s important to note that there’s actually very little evidence that supports the use of opioids for chronic pain. Many physicians agree that opioids may be the most suitable option for managing sudden, but temporary pain, like from a surgical procedure or injury.
Chronic pain, however, is characterized by pain that “persists or progresses over a long period of time.” Evidence suggests that long-term opioid use often results in a slew of problems, including the risk of addiction. Plus, opioid medications are tolerance building, and many patients eventually reach a “dose ceiling” resulting in the diminishing effects of the medications, which may leave them in pain with few options for recourse.
Opioids also have a pretty lengthy list of potential side effects, many of which could be severe. Opioid side effects include dizziness, nausea, sedation, vomiting, constipation, tolerance, and respiratory depression. Still, these uncomfortable side effects pale in comparison to the largest portion of the problem: physical dependence.
Rough estimates suggest that nearly 2 million Americans suffer from substance abuse disorder that is related to opioids. The majority of opioid dependency cases can be linked back to prescription medications, many of which are prescribed for chronic pain.
The travesty doesn’t stop there, as opioid medications (and especially illegal, street forms of opiates) are incredibly easy to overdose on. Even more, many street forms of opioids are laced or spiked with dangerous non-pharmaceutical fentanyl, which makes it doubly dangerous. The National Institute on Drug Abuse estimates that over 130 people die in the United States every day from an opioid overdose. Further, the source estimates that prescription opioid misuse results in a considerable amount of “economic burden,” about $78.5 billion a year, after considering multiple factors like healthcare costs, loss of productivity, criminal justice involvement, and rehabilitation costs.
The numbers quickly highlight why there’s so much urgency behind research efforts to help end the opioid crisis, not only in America but across the world. It also accentuates the reason that so many researchers are elated at the idea that CBD could be an alternative to opioid medication, but there are still multiple obstacles standing in the way of an end to the opioid epidemic.
Research Says CBD Helps With Pain
Using cannabis-based therapy for pain is not a new concept, but most research covering the cannabidiol for pain is still fairly new. Still, multiple studies exist that support the use of CBD for multiple instances causing pain. One study shows that cannabinoids may be useful even for managing pain that is otherwise difficult to treat, and showcases an FDA approved drug, Sativex, which contains both THC and CBD compounds.
Further, CBD has been identified as a potent analgesic substance and a powerful anti-inflammatory, meaning it may help to target pain and relieve discomfort in more than one way. CBD is also at the center of research regarding the treatment of neuropathic pain and pain caused by multiple sclerosis, which is largely diagnosed as refractory, or non-respondent to medication. There’s a slew of evidence suggesting CBD may be a suitable option for relief from multiple severe or chronic illnesses causing pain, like arthritis, fibromyalgia, and potentially even cancer-related pain.
How Does CBD Work to Fight Pain?
CBD research is still somewhere in its infancy, and there’s a lot to be learned about the many ways it may interact within the body. Still, we know that it interacts with multiple bodily systems via the Endocannabinoid System, like sleep patterns, emotion regulation, certain neurological functions (namely those involved in seizures), and (most importantly) pain signaling. Unlike some other Cannabinoids, however, CBD does not act directly upon either CB1 or CB2 receptors. Instead, it may react individually within the ECS to affect some systemic processes at their core. For the modulation of pain signaling, we do have some information to explain this interaction.
First, CBD interacts directly with TRPV-1 and adenosine receptors, which both have a heavy hand in many processes including inflammation and the perception of pain. By bonding at these receptor sites, CBD produces an array of effects, at the center of which are anti-inflammatory and pain-blocking signals.
Further, CBD binds with 5-HT1A receptors, one of the main serotonin receptors in the body. Serotonin is an important neurotransmitter that is subsequently involved in pain signaling as well but also plays a primary role in brain circuit responses related to addiction. In some ways, CBD is able to fill the shoes of opioid medications by stimulating these serotonin receptors, which may help reduce cravings and withdrawal symptoms during the transition away from opioid-based pharmaceuticals.
Can CBD Replace Opioids?
As you can see, there is some pretty outstanding evidence that cannabidiol could be a pain solution for many pain-related conditions. The small amount of evidence regarding CBD’s interaction with the brain and pain-signaling helps us understand how it could help eliminate pain on two levels, by blocking pain signals from reaching the brain and by relieving inflammation at the pain site, which is often known as the primary source of pain. Plus, there’s evidence that cannabidiol interacts with the brain in ways that may help ease symptoms of physical dependency, which means cannabidiol could be an option for patients suffering from Opioid Use Disorder.
Of course, there are many variables in the road to understanding the full impact cannabidiol has on pain and related chronic conditions. In most cases, nothing will act as an immediate replacement for opioids, especially for people who have a high opioid tolerance or who have taken opioids for a long time. CBD, however, may be the best first step in transitioning away from opioid dependency and may help keep chronic pain at bay.
Cannabidiol may very well be the pain solution you’ve been looking for, but it’s important that you talk to your doctor about CBD before trying it, especially if you suffer from a chronic illness or already take prescription medications. CBD may interact with medications, though a positive interaction between opioids and CBD has been identified in some cases. Your doctor will be able to help you decide if CBD as an alternative to opioids is right for you, and may be able to help you choose from the many options, like CBD gummies, capsules, oral tinctures, and more.
If you and your doctor agree that CBD may be the best option for you, you may also want to read “The Many Forms of CBD: Choosing the Best CBD Products for You,” and “Common CBD Side Effects and How to Avoid Them.”