Now, smart consumers can fine-tune their buying habits by selecting the right terpenes for pain treatment.
In the beginning, cannabis treated pain. And it was good. However, new research has led to a more precise understanding of which components of the plant are actually responsible for spiriting away suffering. Because there are different kinds of pain, and not all pain is created equal, picking the right chemovars of cannabis can mean the difference between feeling only slight relief and finding the correct terpenes for pain.
That’s why it’s important to understand not only how THC and CBD affect the body’s pain tolerance, but how the subtler cannabinoids called terpenes — primarily known for the color and scent they give the plant — play important analgesic roles. In the same way that over-the-counter pain relievers have different functions (Tylenol and Aleve can both treat headaches, but doctors see differences in how they affect migraines), choosing the right terpenes for pain can make a big difference in outcomes.
Terpenes for Pain: What the Science Says
Recently, research published in the Journal of Headache Pain (2018) surveyed 2,032 medical cannabis patients to see what kind of relief different chemovars of cannabis brought to people suffering from varying kinds of pain.
The study found people consumed cannabis to deal with twenty-one different causes of pain, with headache being the most common (twenty-five percent of respondents). Most patients preferred hybrid chemovars (a mix of indica and sativa strains) for all pain types.
Patients with the primary symptoms of migraines and other headaches most listed the hybrid chemovar “OG Shark,” a Canadian blend of fifty percent indica and fifty percent sativa as the best strain for pain.
So, what does that tell us about terpenes? OG Shark may be a potent mix of indica and sativa, but it’s hardly alone in the field. The reason it eases pain better than many other fifty-fifty blends is the high quality of its terpene profile.
More specifically, OG Shark is a high THC/low CBD chemovar that just so happens to have a high percentage of the terpenes caryophyllene and myrcene, two of the most important analgesic (pain relieving) terpenes.
Renowned as the first-ever “dietary cannabinoid” for more than a decade, caryophyllene is a major component of cannabis, but it’s also present in basil, black pepper, cloves, cinnamon, oregano, and rosemary.
Caryophyllene exhibits anti-inflammatory and analgesic effects by interacting with the body’s endocannabinoid system. In fact, it has the distinction of being the only terpene currently known to bind directly to the CB2 receptor, according to research published in Communicative and Interactive Biology (2008).
Because it interacts directly with CB2, caryophyllene can deliver potent pain relief that is especially effective for treating disorders such as atherosclerosis, joint pain, and osteoporosis. In simple terms, the science says almost anything that involves inflammation can benefit from a jolt of caryophyllene.
A study published in the European Journal of Pain (2013) found that mice who were injected with a healthy dose of caryophyllene felt less pain than their non-treated peers. How? The scientists determined that the caryophyllene stimulates the release from the body’s natural fighting cells and endorphins. It does this by interacting with the CB2 receptors.
But it’s only one of the two most effective terpenes for pain.
Probably the most famous terpene, myrcene is prevalent in most varieties of cannabis and also exists in smaller quantities in basil, bay leaves, hops, parsley, wild thyme, lemongrass, and tropical fruits such as mango.
Its concentration is the deciding factor in whether a strain will have an indica (producing a sedative effect) or sativa effect (more of an energizing effect). A chemovar containing more than 0.5 percent myrcene by weight is an indica, anything less is a sativa.
And, best of all, myrcene is a serious pain fighter. A 2008 study published in Therapeutics and Clerical Risk Management found that myrcene’s pain-relieving effects are nearly the same as opium’s — but without the same addiction potential.
Why Terpenes in Cannabis are Different
If using terpenes for pain works so well, why can’t people just consume mangoes and lemons? Not to mention all the other plants that contain terpenes. Why does it have to be cannabis?
That’s a good question. And indeed, scientists have found that the same terpenes in other plants also have pain-relieving properties. For example, a study published in the journal Channels (2019) showed that myrcene from non-cannabis sources does indeed have analgesic properties.
But there are two important differences. First, many plants have such small amounts of terpenes that their benefits are next to zero. Nobody wants to eat thirty-five pounds of mangoes to relieve pain.
More important is cannabis’ entourage effect. THC and CBD on their own can help pain. So can terpenes. But when they’re combined, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
All these cannabinoids work together to create a more serious pain reliever than they do separately.
Consuming cannabis with the right terpenes is simply one of the most potent ways to take advantage of natural, herbal, pain relief.