Cannabidiol (CBD) is a compound extracted from the cannabis plant — yep, the same plant most of us know as marijuana. If that concerns you, know this: Pure CBD is not the same as recreational pot or medical marijuana. CBD is not intoxicating; it doesn’t make you high.
The World Health Organization (WHO) declared in 2018 that CBD is generally safe for most people and shows no abuse or dependence potential or evidence of other public health-related problems. In fact, in a critical review report on CBD, the WHO found that CBD may be helpful in managing a variety of chronic illnesses, including arthritis.
The topic of CBD usage has become a staple in online arthritis groups and discussions. You may have encountered various CBD products — oils, oral tinctures, lotions, pills, gum, inhalants, and others — being sold in local stores or online. Even major drugstore chains like CVS and Walgreens announced earlier this year that they plan to start selling certain CBD products in stores in certain states.
This is for good reason, says Jordan Tishler, MD, a Harvard emergency physician who specializes in medical cannabis products and is the founder of InhaleMD, which is a Boston-area medical practice that specializes in cannabis therapeutics. “I have seen tremendous improvements for patients in pain control, stiffness, and increased mobility with cannabis products, including CBD,” he says. “Most importantly, I have seen significant improvement in reported quality of life.”
After coping for years with chronic pain from endometriosis and osteoarthritis, April Olshavsky found so much relief from using CBD to help manage her pain that she decided to open her own business, Herbal Risings, which is a company that educates people on the proper use of CBD products. It has also opened several CBD dispensaries with the purpose of helping people with chronic pain.
Taking CBD for Arthritis: Things to Consider First
If you haven’t yet tried CBD yourself, you may be wondering what all the fuss is about — and whether CBD could help you with your pain or other symptoms. It’s important to keep the following things in mind as you do research on CBD and talk to others about it.
CBD research is still in very early days. Much of the available information is anecdotal (as are the examples below) or based on animal studies. Factors like the placebo effect can play a role when people tout CBD’s benefits. And with so much hype about CBD, it’s easy for companies to make false or misleading claims. In fact, the FDA has issued several warnings to companies about unproven claims that CBD products will treat or prevent disease. Since CBD products are not regulated the way prescription medications are, there’s no way to know exactly what you’re getting.
The legal status of CBD in America is complicated. The short answer is that, as of now, state and local laws dictate whether the sale and possession of CBD products is allowed. Laws about CBD are in flux and will likely remain this way for years. You should always check with your local government for the most up-to-date information, according to Bridget Seritt, co-founder of the Canna-Patient Resource Connection, a Colorado-based organization that is working to protect patient rights and end stigma against those who choose cannabis as medicine.
For this reason, we have changed the names of some people (per their request) who shared their stories for this article.
There’s no truly “pure” CBD. Certain laws make a distinction between products that contain THC, the cannabinoid that’s associated with the “high” of using marijuana, and products that contain CBD but little or no THC. However, there’s no way of knowing exactly how much THC is in the products you’re using. Even those labeled as “pure” CBD or CBD isolate can have small amounts of THC, which can build up over time and possibly cause someone to fail a drug test. If you need to take drug tests for your housing, job, or medical care, this is something important to consider before you start using CBD, says Seritt.
CBD — or any supplement — should never replace the treatment your doctor recommends for your arthritis. Prescription medications are often at the core of treatment due to the strong evidence supporting their success.
Talk to your doctor about your interest in using CBD. They can let you know if CBD might interact with any medications you currently take or potentially worsen a chronic condition.
If you’re intrigued about what it’s actually like to use CBD for arthritis and chronic pain, we talked to six people about their experiences with taking CBD for their arthritis. We hope this story sheds some light on why they decided to use CBD and how using CBD affected their health.
What Patients Say It Felt Like to Use CBD
‘CBD Ointment Helps My Osteoarthritis Flares’
April Olshavsky’s first experience with CBD was in 2016 during a severe bout of endometriosis pain. “Normally this would have sent me to the emergency room; I was doubled over in pain,” she says. She took a vaporized form of CBD and felt right away that her muscles had relaxed, which made the pain more bearable.
This experience inspired her to keep using CBD to help manage the arthritis pain in her arms and shoulders from years of being a pet groomer. “I started with a low-strength 100 mg CBD salve [ointment], and only noticed a slight difference at first,” she explains. “When I combined it with trigger massage, the pain was noticeably less, but it does take a few minutes to work.” The trick for her was the combination of CBD salve and massage daily to stay on top of her symptoms. Doing this has helped reduce the frequency of bad arthritis flare-ups, she says.
She prefers topical CBD ointments for their ability to target her sore joints individually, but she says many of her clients with inflammatory types of arthritis prefer daily tinctures, which are oral suspensions taken under the tongue, to help with inflammation and flare-ups.
‘CBD Helps, But It’s Not a Miracle Cure’
While some people describe “life-changing” results from using CBD, others, like Jessie Abdullah, of British Columbia, Canada, experienced benefits but not in a dramatic way. “The first time I tried CBD oil for my rheumatoid arthritis it was a big nothing,” she says. She’d read miracle stories about CBD in online forums and was excited to try it for her newly diagnosed condition. She bummed a few CBD oil pills off a friend and waited. And waited. She didn’t feel a thing.
After six months of trying different diets, exercises, and supplements, Jessie went back to her rheumatologist. “I told him everything I tried, including the CBD. I was in an insane amount of pain and misery. He convinced me that I needed to start meds for the arthritis right away, as the longer I waited the more damage it was doing and that couldn’t be fixed,” she says. Her doctor pointed out she could still use some natural approaches in conjunction with RA meds and even gave her the names of some CBD oil products he considered high quality.
She did daily sublingual CBD drops, per her doctor’s advice, and took her prescription medications consistently. “It took a good six weeks to see results after starting methotrexate but I think the CBD helped me get through that time,” she says. “For me, it really is the two together. I think the CBD has helped lessen my flare-ups and improved my mood, helping me cope with my diagnosis better.”
‘I Noticed a Big Difference in My Hand Arthritis’
Hand pain from osteoarthritis was making Angie Kynaston’s life unbearable. “It was keeping me awake at night and I would wake up so stiff that if anyone even bumped my fingers I would cry out,” says the Draper, Utah nurse and mom. “If I even moved wrong I would be jolted with sharp pain.” Yet because she has only one kidney, many pain medications and arthritis treatments are off limits for her. Then a friend told Angie about a “marijuana cream” that had brought her father significant relief from his arthritis, and she decided it couldn’t hurt to try it.
She got a CBD lotion with a small amount of THC (the compound in marijuana responsible for the “getting high” feeling) in it and rubbed it on her hands. The effect was so immediate, she says — within minutes she felt the pain dissipating — that she burst into happy tears. “It was the first time I felt like there was hope for me,” she says.
Even though the CBD lotions she prefers also contain THC, she is clear that they have never made her feel buzzed. “It doesn’t make me feel ‘high’ in any way; it only makes my hands less inflamed and less painful,” she says.
She wishes legislators could understand the difference between CBD products and recreational marijuana and how important CBD is for people living with arthritis.
‘CBD Helps Me Sleep Through the Night Again’
It had been over three years since Carmen Martinez, of Los Angeles, California, slept through the night. Pain and swelling from her psoriatic arthritis would wake her as soon as she got comfortable, making her feel like a walking zombie. “I was barely making it through my day, I had no energy,” she says. “It made me very depressed and unhappy to the point where my family was very worried about me.”
Then, three months ago, her doctor suggested she check out CBD oil. He started her on an oral tincture, doing one drop under her tongue, twice a day. “I noticed a difference after the second dose,” she says. “It wasn’t huge but it was there. I just felt calmer and there was less pain.” Over the next month her doctor increased her dose until she was taking 15 mg of CBD oil twice a day, with her second dose right before bedtime.
“The results have been beyond what I dreamed. I can sleep eight hours at night and I’m not feeling depressed anymore,” she says, adding that she thinks using CBD has also helped her deal with the nausea and other side effects of her prescribed arthritis medications. “For years I felt like there was no light at the end of the tunnel and now I have hope. I never thought I’d be able to say that.”
‘Using CBD Made Me Feel Drunk — and Not in a Good Way’
Anxiety is what prompted Jason Johnson,* of Minneapolis, Minnesota, to try CBD oil. “I was going through a really tough time in my life, a lot of stress at work and at home. I was a total basket case, not eating or sleeping,” he says. To add insult to injury, the stress caused a flare of reactive arthritis, adding chronic pain to his list of woes.
A work colleague gave Jason a vape pen with CBD oil in it. He took it and was surprised to feel his anxiety melting away. Not wanting to vape long-term, he switched to an oral tincture with a small percentage of THC. “At first I didn’t feel much of anything, not like the relief from the vape pen,” he says. “So I tried increasing the dose. The first thing I noticed was the pain from my arthritis was gone. But I think I went overboard because it made me feel nauseous and dizzy, similar to how I feel when I’m drunk.”
He tried the CBD tincture a second time, spacing the doses further apart, but had similar results. He didn’t like the feeling and as a father was hesitant to do anything that might make him impaired while caring for his kids. The variability in the effects may have to do with the product he was using. He wonders if he might have had a better experience using CBD if he’d been able to go to a professional dispensary.
“It did help my arthritis and anxiety but ultimately I decided that CBD oil wasn’t for me,” he says. “Worrying how it was going to affect me stressed me out more and I don’t need that.” However, he would be open to trying CBD again if he could do so under the direction of his doctor with higher-quality products, he adds.
*Name has been changed
‘CBD Has Made Me Less Reliant on My Cane’
With two knee replacements and one hip surgery under her belt, Mary Patridge, of Dallas, Texas, was resigned to her limitations. Even though she was only in her early forties, juvenile arthritis and later rheumatoid arthritis had taken a serious toll on her body. She had to rely on canes and walkers to go to the bathroom; a wheelchair was necessary any time she left the house.
“About a year ago, after my hip replacement, my friend brought me a ‘get well’ basket and it had a bottle of CBD capsules in it. I figured what the heck and took some,” she says. The capsules, which also contained a small percentage of THC, had an almost immediate effect on the swelling in her hands and feet, she says. “It just felt like a wave of relief washing over me,” she says, remembering the wonder she felt as she clenched and unclenched her hands without the searing pain she’d become used to.
The longer she took the CBD capsules, the more benefit she says she experienced. Her pain has improved to the point that she can take short walks unassisted. Mary adds that she has also started a gluten-free, low-sugar diet, which she also credits with some of her improvement.
“The last time I could walk around the block by myself, Brittney Spears and Justin Timberlake were still together — well, I guess I outlasted them,” she jokes. “My movement isn’t great but it’s so much better than what it was that I can’t be anything but thankful.”
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