Cannabis and CBD for Back and Neck Pain Q&A
For people who have struggled with chronic back or neck pain, the list of treatments tried is likely long. Some traditional therapies for pain, namely opioid medication, pose significant risks. Seeking safer alternatives, people are increasingly using cannabis, hemp, and cannabinoid products (such as cannabidiol, or CBD) to manage spine pain. But because marijuana-related pain management is legally conflicted in the United States and a relative newcomer to mainstream medicine, questions remain about its safety and efficacy.
Use of cannabis, hemp and cannabinoid products for many different medical conditions, including back pain, is gaining popularity. Photo Source: iStock.com.
This Q&A guide can help clarify the confusion about cannabis-related pain management, so you can better understand the risks and benefits of this potential chronic pain treatment.
What are the key definitions I need to understand regarding medical marijuana?
The terms surrounding medical marijuana can be confusing. Below are some basic definitions.
- Cannabis sativa: The plant that produces both marijuana and hemp. 1
- Cannabinoid: One of the more than 100 compounds that exists in cannabis. 2
- Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC): A cannabinoid known for producing an intoxicating “high,” 2
- Cannabidiol (CBD): A cannabinoid known for its non-intoxicating, nonpsychoactive medicinal effects. 1
How and why might some people use cannabis for medical purposes?
Although cannabis has recently exploded onto the mainstream medicine scene, evidence suggests that people have used cannabis for medical purposes for more than 5,000 years. 3 Common uses for medical marijuana include treatment of epilepsy, sleep disorders, anxiety disorders, and pain (including back, neck, and chronic pain). More recently, people have sought out cannabis and CBD products as alternatives to opioids, which have been linked to addiction and death.
Is it legal to use marijuana for back and neck pain?
State and federal laws differ regarding marijuana, but it largely depends on where you live.
- On the state level, more U.S. states are legalizing both medical and recreational use of marijuana. As of January 2020, in the United States, legalized medical marijuana programs are in 33 U.S. states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. An additional 13 U.S. states have enacted programs legalizing the use of low-THC, high-CBD products to treat specific conditions. 2
- On the federal level, cannabis and its related products that contain more than 0.3% of THC are considered Schedule 1 controlled substances—making them federally illegal. However, industrial hemp, which is cannabis containing very low amounts of THC, was made federally legal in 2018. 2
What does the evidence say about cannabis’ effect on spinal pain?
Overall, more high-quality, human studies are needed to confirm whether cannabis, CBD, and hemp are safe and effective therapeutic options for chronic back and neck pain. However, evidence is mounting that shows CBD and hemp may play a greater role in managing chronic spine pain and curbing opioid-related risks.
A 2018 study found that CBD reduced nerve-related and inflammatory pain in animals, supporting a promising future for CBD as a mainstream pain relief option. Evidence has also found that CBD is a safe effective addiction therapy, leading CBD to rise in popularity for it’s potential to treat opioid abuse and prevent it as a viable chronic pain-relieving alternative. 1
Will I get “high” if I use CBD or hemp products to manage my back pain?
No, CBD and hemp do not cause any intoxicating effects. The “high” resulting from marijuana use is caused by THC, which is just one of the many cannabinoids in cannabis. CBD is also a cannabinoid in cannabis, but it doesn’t cause any “high.” CBD and hemp products may contain trace amount of THC, but the levels are too low to cause any psychoactive effects.
How do people use cannabis and CBD?
Products containing cannabis, hemp, and CBD are exploding. Some people prefer to smoke cannabis, but manufacturers are getting creative when it comes to producing products containing cannabis and its related compounds. Food, beverages, dietary supplements, oils, topicals (like creams and salves), and bath soaks are just a few of the applications consumers can use.
Is vaping a safe way to use cannabis for pain relief?
No. Vaping, or e-cigarette use, grew in popularity as a more discrete alternative to smoking. However, the subsequent rise of lung-related disease directly connected to vaping sickened thousands and even led to the death of dozens of Americans. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has encouraged people to stop vaping entirely.
What is known about the safety of CBD products?
The FDA admits research about the safety of CBD products is quite limited. To date, Epidiolex (cannabidiol) is the only FDA-approved prescription drug, and this medication is only indicated for treatment of 2 rare types of epilepsy. Bear in mind that just because a product is FDA-approved doesn’t mean it’s completely safe without potential side effects that could be serious. 4
The FDA warns consumers about illegal CBD marketing strategies and product promises. They also suggest the potential for liver damage, serious side effects when combined with other medications, such as central nervous system depressants (eg, tranquilizers). While CBD products can cause side effects (eg, drowsiness, mood changes), these symptoms may go away when use is stopped. The FDA raises many unanswered questions about the effects on infants and children, not only adults. 4
How can people find a high-quality CBD or hemp product?
Because mass-marketed CBD and hemp oils and other products are not approved or regulated by the FDA, it can be challenging to know whether a product is safe or actually contains the ingredients promised on the label. Products containing synthetic cannabinoids (eg, “spice”) are especially concerning, as they have been linked to serious complications.
To narrow the field, researchers recommend you ask the following questions before buying 1 :
- Does it meet quality standards outlined by a credible certification body, such as Current Good Manufacturing Practices (CGMP), European Union (EU), or Science Foundation (NSF) International?
- Does the manufacturer report adverse events tied to its products?
- Is the product certified organic?
- Does the product undergo laboratory testing to confirm THC levels?
Should you talk to your doctor if you use cannabis or cannabinoids?
Yes. To effectively treat your spinal pain, your doctor needs to understand all the medications, drugs, and supplements you’re taking—and that includes any cannabis, hemp, or CBD products. These products may interact with a drug you’re prescribed, so your doctor needs to know this information to keep you safe. As medicinal uses of marijuana become more commonplace, clinicians understand that more patients are curious about whether it will ease their pain. Don’t be hesitant to share your interest in CBD with your doctor, as he or she may help you choose a reputable product.
More Research Needed but Cannabis May Be a Promising Chronic Pain Therapy
With the rise of opioid-related addiction and death, people have sought out cannabis and cannabinoids (such as cannabidiol, or CBD) as pain-relieving alternatives. And if traditional treatments have failed to ease your back or neck pain, you may be curious to try cannabis or CBD products. As these therapies skyrocket in popularity and become more readily available, don’t forget to keep your doctor looped in. He or she needs to understand how you’re managing your pain to ensure your treatment regimen isn’t doing you more harm than good.
1. VanDolah HJ, Bauer BA, Mauck KF. Clinicians’ Guide to Cannabidiol and Hemp Oils. Mayo Clin Proc. September 2019;94(9):1840-1851. doi.org/10.1016/j.mayocp.2019.01.003. Accessed January 29, 2020.
2. Rubin R. Cannabidiol Products Are Everywhere, but Should People Be Using Them? JAMA. 2019;322(22):2156. https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/fullarticle/2756099. Accessed January 29, 2020.
3. Bridgeman MB, Abazia DT. Medicinal Cannabis: History, Pharmacology, And Implications for the Acute Care Setting. PT. 2017;42(3):180–188. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5312634/. Accessed January 29, 2020.
4. US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). What You Need to Know (And What We’re Working to Find Out) About Products Containing Cannabis or Cannabis-derived Compounds, including CBD. November 25, 2019. https://www.fda.gov/consumers/consumer-updates/what-you-need-know-and-what-were-working-find-out-about-products-containing-cannabis-or-cannabis. Accessed January 29, 2020.
Tyndall DS. CBD Oil, the new medical elixir. NWI Times. July 13, 2018. https://www.nwitimes.com/lifestyles/cbd-oil-the-new-medical-elixir/article_eb5fb3e3-862b-59f5-a859-70dbf5057193.html. Accessed January 29, 2020.
Harris-Taylor M. He Started Vaping THC To Cope With Chronic Pain. Then He Got Sick. NPR. December 11, 2019. https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2019/12/11/776356212/he-started-vaping-thc-to-cope-with-chronic-pain-then-he-got-sick. Accessed January 29, 2020.
The Medical Letter on Drugs and Therapeutics. The Medical Letter, Inc. November 18, 2019;61(1585).
Cannabis, hemp, and cannabinoid products, such as CBD oil, are gaining public popularity to treat back pain. Spine doctor answers 10 key questions.
Using CBD Oil for Pain Management: Does It Work?
Cannabidiol (CBD) is a type of cannabinoid, a chemical found naturally in cannabis (marijuana and hemp) plants. CBD doesn’t cause the “high” feeling often associated with cannabis. That feeling is caused by tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), a different type of cannabinoid.
Some people with chronic pain use topical CBD products, in particular CBD oil, to manage their symptoms. CBD oil may reduce:
- overall discomfort related to a variety of health conditions
The research on CBD products and pain management has been promising.
CBD can offer an alternative for people who have chronic pain and rely on medications, such as opioids, that can be habit-forming and cause more side effects. However, more research is needed to verify the pain-relieving benefits of CBD oil and other products.
Epidiolex, a drug prescribed for epilepsy, is the only CBD product on the market that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved.
There aren’t any FDA-approved, nonprescription CBD products. They aren’t regulated for purity and dosage like other medications.
Keep reading to learn more about the potential benefits of CBD use for pain. You can also talk with your doctor to see if it’s an option for your condition.
Everyone has a cell-signaling system known as the endocannabinoid system (ECS).
Some researchers think that CBD interacts with a core component of the ECS — endocannabinoid receptors in your brain and immune system.
Receptors are tiny proteins attached to your cells. They receive signals, mostly chemical ones, from different stimuli and help your cells respond.
This response creates anti-inflammatory and pain-relieving effects that help with pain management. This means that CBD oil and other products may benefit people with chronic pain, such as chronic back pain.
One 2018 review assessed how well CBD works to relieve chronic pain. The review looked at studies conducted between 1975 and March 2018. These studies examined various types of pain, including:
Based on these studies, researchers concluded that CBD was effective in overall pain management and didn’t cause negative side effects.
A 2016 study looked at CBD use in rats with arthritis.
Researchers applied CBD gel to rats for four days in a row. The rats received either 0.6, 3.1, 6.2, or 62.3 milligrams (mg) per day. The researchers noted reduced inflammation and overall pain in the rats’ affected joints. There were no obvious side effects.
Rats who received low doses of 0.6 or 3.1 mg didn’t improve their pain scores. The researchers found that 6.2 mg/day was a high enough dose to reduce the rats’ pain and swelling.
In addition, rats who received 62.3 mg/day had similar outcomes to the rats that received 6.2 mg/day. Receiving a substantially larger dosage didn’t result in them having less pain.
The anti-inflammatory and pain-relieving effects of CBD gel could potentially help people with arthritis. However, more human studies are needed.
Some people with cancer also use CBD. Research on mice has shown that CBD can lead to the shrinking of cancerous tumors. However, most studies in humans have investigated the role of CBD in managing pain related to cancer and cancer treatment.
The National Cancer Institute (NCI) has pointed to CBD as a possible option for reducing chemotherapy side effects, such as:
- lack of appetite
In a 2010 study on cancer-related pain, study subjects received oral sprays of a combination THC-CBD extract. The THC-CBD extract was used in conjunction with opioids. This study revealed that using the extract provided more effective pain relief than using the opioids alone.
A 2013 study on THC and THC-CBD oral sprays had a similar finding. Many researchers from the 2010 study worked on this study as well. More evidence is still needed.
Studies on CBD and migraine are limited. The studies that currently exist also look at CBD when it’s paired with THC, not when it’s used alone.
However, results from a 2017 study indicate that CBD and THC can lead to less acute pain and less intense pain for people with migraine.
In this two-phase study, some participants took a combination of two compounds. One compound contained 9 percent CBD and almost no THC. The other compound contained 19 percent THC. Doses were taken orally.
In phase I, there was no effect on pain when the doses were under 100 mg. When the doses were increased to 200 mg, acute pain fell by 55 percent.
In phase II, participants who received the combination of CBD and THC compounds saw the frequency of their migraine attacks fall by 40.4 percent. The daily dose was 200 mg.
The combination of compounds was slightly more effective than 25 mg of amitriptyline, a tricyclic antidepressant. Amitriptyline reduced migraine attacks by 40.1 percent in study participants.
Participants with cluster headaches also found pain relief with the combination of CBD and THC compounds, but only if they’d had a childhood history of migraine.
CBD doesn’t pose significant risks for users, and most topical CBD products don’t enter the bloodstream.
However, certain side effects are possible, such as:
- changes in appetite
- changes in weight
- certain over-the-counter (OTC) drugs
- prescription medications
- dietary supplements
Proceed with caution if any of your medications or supplements contain a “grapefruit warning.” Grapefruit and CBD both interfere with enzymes that are crucial to drug metabolism.
Like other drugs and supplements, CBD may also increase your risk of liver toxicity.
One study on mice concluded that CBD-rich cannabis extract increased their risk of liver toxicity. However, some of the mice had been force-fed very large amounts of the CBD-rich cannabis extract.
While there isn’t conclusive data to support CBD or CBD oil as the preferred method of pain management, researchers agree that these types of products have a lot of potential.
CBD products might be able to offer relief for many people who have chronic pain, all without causing drug intoxication and dependence.
If you’re interested in trying CBD for chronic pain, talk to your doctor. They can help you determine a starting dosage that’s right for you.
Is CBD Legal? Hemp-derived CBD products (with less than 0.3 percent THC) are legal on the federal level, but are still illegal under some state laws. Marijuana-derived CBD products are illegal on the federal level, but are legal under some state laws. Check your state’s laws and those of anywhere you travel. Keep in mind that nonprescription CBD products are not FDA-approved, and may be inaccurately labeled.
Cannabidiol (CBD) oil, made from cannabis, is sometimes used for chronic pain. We’ll review the research on whether CBD oil is effective.