When it comes to pain relief and cannabis, it is usually CBD that is the star compound responsible for the medical reasoning of consuming weed. The truth is, as demonstrated by increasingly numerous recent studies, that THC also plays a role in pain alleviation.
In this article we’ll explain how THC contributes to pain relief and what the studies show – because a simple yes to the question is not enough.
What is THC?
First things first, it’s important to know that Tetrahydrocannabinol, or commonly known as THC, is a compound discovered in 1964, and responsible for the psychoactive effects of the marijuana plant. Back then, it was found that when smoked, THC is absorbed into the bloodstream and after traveling to the brain, it attaches to the endocannabinoid receptors, in parts of the brain responsible for pleasure, movement, and coordination. Today, technology and further studies showed how THC can be consumed without necessarily having to be smoked, yet conveying the same effects on the body.
On the other side of the cannabis spectrum, there is CBD, which affects the body differently, without carrying any psychoactive effects. Recent studies show that CBD plays a part in reducing inflammation and anxiety alleviation. To compare the two, THC impacts how the mind perceives the pain, while CBD acts at the source, as each of these stimulates or inhibits different chemicals within the body.
How Does THC Affect The Body?
In terms of its molecular mechanism, there is more known about THC than any other cannabis compound. It is significant however to also take a look at the body’s endocannabinoid system, because that is the key enhancer for how the body experiences cannabis.
The endocannabinoid system adjusts the body’s desire to remain balanced and stable, a state known as homeostasis. The system is also significant in neuronal and immune cell function – both important factors in pain reception. There are three parts of the cannabinoid system: cannabinoid receptors (CB1 and CB2), endogenous cannabinoids (produced by one’s own body), and enzymes that facilitate the breakdown and use of cannabinoids.
The cannabinoid receptors are located throughout the body and determine how the cannabinoids affect it. CB1 receptors are mainly found in the central nervous system (which include the nerves in the spinal cord and brain) and influence the experience of pain. CB1 receptors play a role in signaling the pain to the brain via the spinal cord. Psychologically, CB1 receptors affect one’s emotions, memory, executive functioning, and reward system.
CB2 receptors influence pain via their anti-inflammatory effect and analgesic properties. These receptors are present in immune cells, peripheral tissues and the central nervous system. THC has a direct effect on both CB1 and CB2 receptors, although the pairing is not as perfect as when it comes to the body’s own cannabinoids.
THC’s Influence On Pain
Pain is the sign that disease is present, it’s a signal that our bodies send to the motherboard that something is not in order. It is a symptom, not a disease itself. But if the cause of the pain remains unknown, there is little chance of relieving it. And this happens more often than one could imagine. The truth is that there are no effective medicines for certain types of pain.
The manner in which THC interacts with the sensation of pain is quite direct – the peripheral nerves that detect pain sensations contain abundant receptors for cannabinoids, and cannabinoids appear to block peripheral nerve pain.
There is also a role played by THC’s induced euphoria, which can assist in navigating pain, in similar ways as other pain medication does. In that way THC can become a better alternative to the options that are already on the market in the domain of pain relief.
THC vs Opioids
In our quest to find the most effective pain reliefs, the side effects that come along are not always taken into consideration. Recent studies have tilted the balance towards medical marijuana instead of opioids for patients experiencing severe pain.
A 2016 study found that cannabis use for alleviating cancer pain led to a 64% drop in opioid use, improved quality of life, and caused fewer medication side effects. Another study of almost 3000 medical cannabis users showed that while almost 30% had used opioids in the last 6 months, more than 80% agreed that cannabis was more effective on its own than in combination with opioids. An overall consensus of 97% agreed they could decrease their opioid usage in favor of cannabis.
Medical marijuana is not just an excuse to consume weed. More and more studies demonstrate its effectiveness in treatments that were so far reserved for other substances causing severe addiction. THC in particular plays a significant role in interacting with the body’s pain management system.
While CBD took a central role because of its lack of psychoactive effects and offered benefits in its bonds to the endocannabinoid system, the compounds of cannabis act best in concert (the entourage effect). And in this case, it is a combination between THC and CBD that would bring about the most effective results.
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