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The Science of Cannabis Topicals for Headaches

For those of us who suffer from headaches, the cannabis industry has been a lifesaver. Not only have chronic pain patients turned to cannabis topicals like salves and lotions for migraine and headache relief, but have found that effective doses of CBD have proved beneficial in both its analgesic and anti-anxiety properties. Without the dangerous side effects of THC, headache patients now have a safe alternative and can reach out to medical marijuana doctors for expert advice.

Causes of Headaches

We all may be prone to getting headaches stemming from hunger, stress, hormone imbalances, allergies, pollution, higher temperatures, caffeine withdrawal, tension, and so forth. Additionally, these may result in loss of productivity, mental health problems, reduced physical activity, all of which will depend on the type of headache severity.

A recent 2019 research paper from the University of Warwick with 460,195 participants from 14 studies, adds that patients with persistent back pain or headaches are twice as likely to suffer from both disorders. The study says that “they found an association between having persistent low back pain and having persistent (chronic) headaches, with patients experiencing one typically being twice as likely to experience the other compared to people without either headaches or back pain. The association is also stronger for people affected by migraine,” via Science Daily.

Types of Headaches

Temporal headaches can result from muscle spasms or enlarged blood vessels that place pressure on specific nerves that are on either side of the head. Botox has been prescribed to help ease pain and block muscle activity. Local anesthetics too have proved effective in blocking involved nerves that cause temporal headaches. Some patients have even gone as far as undergoing surgery to provide significant relief, while a new group of patients is now consulting with medical marijuana doctors for advice.

Trigeminal autonomic cephalalgias (specifically cluster headache), medication overuse headaches (MOH), which occurs from overuse of headache meds are some of the other types of headaches. People are also affected by migraines and cluster headaches with severe unilateral pain. MOH headaches may affect some patients for more than 15 days a month. Tension headaches can be frequent, infrequent, or chronic presenting itself with bilateral tightening pain that may be debilitating.

General headache treatments will include NSAID’s for regular headaches to triptans, verapamil, antidepressants, and even ergotamines for severe pain. Relaxation training is often combined with traditional meds to help patients. That’s where CBD comes in as a safe and natural alternative to help with chronic pain.

Clinical Studies on Cannabis Use for Headache

A 2017 study about cannabis and headaches adds that there are not enough clinical studies on cannabis use for headaches. That said, there were anecdotal and preliminary results from this study that demonstrated some of the benefits. The study explains that each year 47% of the population will experience a headache categorized as the following:

  •  Migraine -10%
  •  Tension-type headache – 38%
  •  Chronic daily headache- 3%

Historical Studies on Cannabis Use for Headache

Cannabis use was demonstrated in the Assyrian manuscripts during the second millennium BCE. It was recommended to “bind the temples”. It was also used during Ayurvedic preparations in the third and fourth centuries BCE for “diseases of the head” such as migraines.

In ancient Greece, it was used for “pain of the ears.” Persia also used cannabis between the 10th and 17th centuries for headaches. After cannabis use was made illegal in the US, most research ceased, yet today there are a few studies that demonstrate the efficacy of cannabis for headaches and migraines.

The Effects of CBD

Many headaches and migraine patients are currently using cannabis today to help ease their pain. The 2017 study adds that “In a survey of nine California clinics, physicians recorded headaches and migraines as a reason for approving a medical marijuana ID card in 2.7% of cases, and 40.7% of patients self-reported that cannabis has therapeutic benefits for headaches and migraines. In another California survey of 7525 patients, 8.43% of patients reported that they were using medical cannabis to treat migraines. Another survey of 1430 patients found that 9% of patients using medical cannabis to treat migraines (subdivided into 7.5% for classical migraines, 1% for cluster headaches, and 0.5% for others). Other studies have reported the use of cannabis for migraine or headache relief, with specific estimates including 5% and 6.6% for migraines and 3.6% and 7.4% for headache.

Research indicates that smoking cannabis helps to relieve pain linked to pseudotumor cerebri. This is a condition that is related to increased intracranial pressure with uncertain etiology. “This suggests that the therapeutic effect of cannabis in some headache conditions could be a result of reducing intracranial pressure. In fact, dexanabinol, a synthetic cannabinoid, has been found to relieve intracranial pressure and improve outcomes after traumatic brain injury.”

Today it’s understood that women with decreased levels of the endocannabinoid anandamide (AEA) and the endocannabinoid membrane transporter (EMT), a membrane transporter for AEA, leading to an overall decrease in levels of endocannabinoids, will suffer from migraines.

Headache disorders are also linked to mood disorders, anxiety, chronic pain disorders, and epilepsy. That said, the role of the endocannabinoid system in the 2017 study shows a potential therapeutic value for cannabis therapy to help with headaches and migraines. Medical marijuana doctors can guide migraine and headache patients when it comes to choosing cannabis topicals.

The 2017 study adds that “CBD has shown efficacy for headache-related conditions (i.e., anxiety), and has demonstrated an analgesic role associated with TRPV1 receptors, and can serve as a 5HT1a receptor agonist. The pathophysiological mechanisms of many headache disorders are not entirely understood. Nevertheless, preclinical data examining the effects of endocannabinoids on the neurological and vascular systems demonstrate the influence of endocannabinoids in modulating several major components of migraine pathogenesis.”

Cannabinoid compounds stabilize platelets and inhibit serotonin release from platelets during a migraine.  Research has shown that when serotonin is released from aggregating platelets, it causes a migraine. Endocannabinoids also modulate pain signals at the spine level. 

The 2017 study adds that “Endocannabinoids also inhibit trigeminovascular nociceptive processing with dural inputs. The activation of the trigeminovascular system leads to the activation of cutaneous evoked afferent A and C-fibers. Endocannabinoids inhibit these signals via projections from the periaqueductal gray (PAG) and rostral ventral medulla. CB1 receptor activation in the ventrolateral PAG has also been shown to modulate nociceptive trigeminovascular transmission in the trigeminocervical complex via activation of 5HT1B/1D receptors. Endocannabinoids also influence serotonergic neurons within the brainstem dorsal raphe to modulate pain,” via NCBI.

All in all, cannabis topicals for headaches show tremendous potential for pain relief. By applying a simple topical like a CBD salve, balm or lotion on the temples and forehead, you can get almost immediate pain relief with no long term side effects. As usual, consult with medical marijuana doctors for the best advice.