But that’s not quite as exciting for CBD as it sounds: “We don’t know cannabidiol’s effects on its own,” says Cooper, who was part of the National Academies committee that put together this report. “[The conclusions about cannabis and cannabinoids] were based on what we know about THC or THC plus cannabidiol.”
First off, we don’t know much about the correct dose of CBD needed for a pain-relieving effect. The doses in the rat studies that were effective were pretty large (for a rat, obviously). And the human participants in the Phase 2 clinical trial we mentioned received 250 mg of synthetic CBD topically per day—as much as many consumer topical CBD products contain in a single jar.
Here’s what the research says about using CBD for pain.
But some studies have found essentially zero side effects of high-dose CBD (900mg) and those that researchers do see—like drug interactions—aren’t considered to be issues when CBD is used topically.
Two other common reasons people take CBD are to manage anxiety and sleep issues, two things we know can contribute to pain, Boehnke says. If you're dealing those kinds of issues in addition to pain, any reduction in pain you feel could be an indirect effect of it helping you manage anxiety or sleep. (But those are still unlikely to be affected by a topical formulation.)
When the National Academies of Sciences, Medicine, and Engineering evaluated decades of cannabis research, they concluded that "in adults with chronic pain, patients who were treated with cannabis or cannabinoids are more likely to experience a clinically significant reduction in pain symptoms."
Topical CBD products work locally on specific parts of the body, potentially helping soothe pain on areas such as joints or particular muscles. CBD gets absorbed by the skin and doesn’t enter the bloodstream. As such, the balm affects the body similarly to over-the-counter topical creams to relieve pain for a certain amount of time.
An in vitro study published in Neurology showed that CBD binds to and desensitizes these receptors, which mediate pain perception and inflammation.
It’s not entirely clear whether infused skin-use topicals are genuinely effective, but consumers seem to feel improvements. The Arthritis Foundation surveyed 2,600 patients with arthritis and found that 79% of respondents had considered CBD use or had already used it, either as an alternative to other pain-relieving balms or anti-inflammatory prescription medications such as NSAIDs.
What the research says
CBD products come in various formulas, typically fitting into one of three categories: full-spectrum, broad-spectrum, and isolate. Full-spectrum CBD is extracted from the cannabis plant and contains minor cannabinoids, terpenes, and trace levels of THC. Broad-spectrum includes a similar range of cannabis matter with the THC removed. Finally, isolate is CBD stripped of all other compounds and left in a pure powder form. The presence or absence of these compounds has varying effects on consumers.
Many consumers find CBD to be soothing and relaxing, but the exact experience you get from a CBD muscle rub depends on several factors. These factors include the type of CBD used in the balm, extra ingredients such as essential oils, the total dosage, and individual differences in the consumer.
CBD muscle balm is a fragrant topical oil or cream that individuals use to soothe sore muscles. Photo by: Gina Coleman/Weedmaps
CBD muscle balm isn’t the only thing that helps with recovery. Consumers use CBD-infused edibles, tinctures, and vapes to achieve similar relief measures, though the results depend on the product quality and dosage.