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Cannabis for Pain Relief: Does it Really Work?

Cannabis leaf

How does medical cannabis work?

Some studies examining cannabis (weed, marijuana, etc.)  as a medicine suggest that cannabis may be effective for pain control, functioning as an anti-inflammatory, easing anxiety, treating insomnia, and aiding with symptoms of chronic conditions (1,2) Other studies have demonstrated that although medical cannabis works to treat pain – it may not work more efficiently than placebo medicines in clinical settings (3). Although chronic pain symptoms are not comprehensively understood or curable today, it is thought by some that cannabinoids (the active compounds in cannabis) interact with cannabinoid receptors within the nervous system, which aid in pain relief.

As medical marijuana legalization spreads throughout the U.S., you may be wondering “Does it really work?”….. we are here to answer a few commonly asked questions for those who are just tuning in to this emerging discussion topic.

What is medical cannabis?

Cannabis is a type of flowering plant in the Cannabaceae family. This plant has hundreds of varieties which can be used for different purposes. Sativa dominant types of cannabis are known to promote upbeat, or more energized, sensations while Indica dominant types are known to promote relaxation and rest. Both are used in medical settings to treat nausea, pain, migraines, and anxiety disorders.

Cannabis contains more than 100 different types of chemicals called cannabinoids (a group of compounds that include CBD and THC). These chemicals interact with receptors on nerve cells throughout throughout the body to produce many effects including pain relief, anxiety reduction and nausea suppression.

Now, endocannabinoids a neurotransmitter which is structurally similar to the active chemicals in medical cannabis, have also been demonstrated to be released during clinical trials with placebo medication. Why? That remains a slight mystery.

CBD, or cannabidiol, is a non-psychoactive compound found in cannabis. Non-psychoactive compounds do not cause psychological effects whereas psychoactive compounds do. CBD has been shown to be effective for pain relief and can be used to treat pain from cancer, diabetes, arthritis and other conditions. Although CBD does not produce the psychological high that THC does,  it does provide anti-inflammatory effects that help relieve certain types of pain.

There are many other active ingredients in cannabis! In addition to cannabinoids like THC and CBD, other compounds such as terpenes also play a role in the effects of medical marijuana. These are aromatic oils produced by the plant which can be extracted from the flowering buds or infused into commonly sold products like tinctures. They have an aroma similar to pine needles or citrus peel, which gives them their name (terpene means “odor”).

Terpenes may help activate cannabinoid receptors themselves or enhance the activity of cannabinoids —and some preliminary research has shown that certain strains of cannabis can be more effective for relieving types of ailments than others depending on their terpenes. This is why it is best to speak to a medical professional when determining which type of medical cannabis will work best for you or if you should use medical cannabis at all.

Medical cannabis in use

Cannabis has been used for centuries to treat pain. Throughout history, there’s evidence that cannabis was used by both ancient Chinese and Indian cultures to manage headaches, cramping, and even toothaches. The herb was especially popular among women who had just given birth – they would smoke marijuana after delivery as they believed it aided in the relief of soreness.

In the modern world, many people continue to use cannabis products such as edibles or tinctures in order to manage their own chronic conditions such as arthritis or fibromyalgia without having any side effects from prescription opioid medication. While cannabis is most commonly prescribed to treat pain, it can also be used to reduce nausea and vomiting from other medications. In cases where chronic illness patients do not easily tolerate their medications due to side effects, cannabis has been known to help these patients. Because placebo medications have been shown to work nearly equally as effectively for pain management, it is important to consider if medical cannabis would really work for you.

In some states, people can legally buy cannabis for medical or recreational use. In other states, it’s illegal to use cannabis for any purpose at all. This is why it is important to read about the law surrounding medical cannabis use in your state!


Cannabis has been used by humans for thousands of years. From its earliest known use in China, people have been using this plant to relieve pain and other ailments. Today, doctors prescribe cannabis to treat a variety of conditions like chronic pain and nausea caused by chemotherapy. Studies have demonstrated that cannabis works better as a treatment for some conditions rather than others.  So yes – medical cannabis works for some individuals and in some cases, but check in with a medical doctor and your state’s laws before trying it yourself!


1.Blake A, Wan BA, Malek L, DeAngelis C, Diaz P, Lao N, Chow E, O’Hearn S. A selective review of medical cannabis in cancer pain management. Ann Palliat Med. 2017 Dec;6(Suppl 2):S215-S222. doi: 10.21037/apm.2017.08.05. Epub 2017 Aug 23. PMID: 28866904.

2.Walsh JH, Maddison KJ, Rankin T, Murray K, McArdle N, Ree MJ, Hillman DR, Eastwood PR. Treating insomnia symptoms with medicinal cannabis: a randomized, crossover trial of the efficacy of a cannabinoid medicine compared with placebo. Sleep. 2021 Nov 12;44(11):zsab149. doi: 10.1093/sleep/zsab149. PMID: 34115851; PMCID: PMC8598183.

3.Gedin F, Blomé S, Pontén M, Lalouni M, Fust J, Raquette A, Vadenmark Lundquist V, Thompson WH, Jensen K. Placebo Response and Media Attention in Randomized Clinical Trials Assessing Cannabis-Based Therapies for Pain: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. JAMA Netw Open. 2022 Nov 1;5(11):e2243848. doi: 10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2022.43848. PMID: 36441553; PMCID: PMC9706362.

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