According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, headaches are the most common type of pain. They account for many days off work and school annually and pose a significant economic, as well as personal, burden.
Most people suffer from headaches occasionally, but for some, they are a regular occurrence. They can also range from mild to completely debilitating.
Furthermore, chronic headaches can be challenging to treat. In fact, some medications can lead to more headaches when patients use them frequently.
Therefore, many people are seeking more natural ways to ease the pain. In this article, we look at cannabis and CBD oil for headaches. Here’s all you need to know.
Types of Headache
There are over 150 types of headaches. Some of these are primary, meaning that they occur independently of any other medical condition. Others are secondary, meaning that they result from another disease, including:
- Sinus problems
- Nerve disorders
To simplify matters, we will focus on four of the most common types of headache: tension-type headaches, migraines, cluster headaches, and medication overuse headaches.
Tension-type headaches (TTH) are extremely common. They occur as a result of tension in the muscles of the shoulders, neck, scalp, and jaw.
They are often stress-related and tend to affect the forehead, temples, or base of the skull. Patients who suffer from TTH describe the pain as tight or band-like.
Migraines are another common type of headache. They are usually one-sided, and the pain is throbbing in nature. Migraines may be accompanied by other symptoms such as aversion to bright lights and nausea.
Some migraine patients also experience an ‘aura’ before the onset of an attack, including flashing lights, zig-zags, or other sensory changes. A migraine can last 4–72 hours from beginning to end.
Cluster headaches (CH) are a severe kind of headache that usually occurs around one eye. Patients describe the pain as piercing, sharp, or burning.
Cluster headaches can happen every day for weeks or months at a time. Each headache can last between 15 minutes and three hours.
Medication Overuse Headache
Some prescription and over-the-counter headache medications can worsen symptoms if a patient takes them too frequently. This phenomenon is known as medication overuse headache (MOH) or ‘rebound headache.’
What Causes Headaches?
In many cases, it is unclear exactly what causes headaches. However, scientists believe that the widening and narrowing of blood vessels play a role, especially in migraines and cluster headaches. Certain areas of the brain, including the hypothalamus, are also likely to be involved.
Some people find that certain foods, smells, or other environmental changes can trigger headaches. For women, monthly hormonal changes may also be a factor.
Conventional Headache Treatments (Not Cannabis-Based)
There are many different headache treatments, and the most appropriate one depends on the type and severity of the symptoms.
For mild, everyday headaches, over-the-counter remedies could be enough to offer some relief. However, for more severe or recurring headaches, preventative treatment may be necessary. This could include medication like beta-blockers, antidepressants, or ergotamine.
However, many of these medications can cause side effects, especially with regular use. Therefore, many people are turning to natural remedies such as cannabis.
Cannabis for Headaches
Humans have used marijuana to relieve headaches for thousands of years. Assyrian manuscripts dating from the 2nd century BCE state that it can “bind the temples.” Meanwhile, Ayurvedic texts from the 3rd and 4th centuries recommend it for “diseases of the head.”
Reports of using cannabis for headaches have continued throughout history, including Greek, Persian, and Arabic documents. Western doctors also promoted its use, including the famous herbalist Nicholas Culpeper and John Russel Reynolds, Queen Victoria’s physician.
Generally speaking, doctors recommended low doses for both the prevention and treatment of headaches. The aim was to achieve symptom relief with minimal intoxication. Throughout the 19th and early 20th century, there were multiple reports of successfully treating headaches with cannabis.
However, after the herb became illegal, things changed dramatically. People began to see cannabis as a dangerous drug and research into its benefits all but ground to a halt.
Therefore, there are very few clinical trials regarding the use of cannabis for headaches. That said, there are many anecdotal reports of it having beneficial effects. For example, this 2017 review for Cannabis and Cannabinoid Research lists several case studies and surveys with positive results.
Fortunately, in the past few years, experts have begun to recognize the healing potential of cannabis once more. This has led to increased research on various topics, including cannabis for headaches and migraines.
Studies on Cannabis for Headaches
Several modern studies have investigated the effect of cannabis on various types of headaches. Here is what they have discovered so far.
Research on Cannabis for Headaches and Migraines
In 2019, The Journal of Pain published an article on the short-term and long-term effects of cannabis on headaches. It reviewed data from a medical marijuana application called Strainprint.
The results showed that there were 12,293 sessions of cannabis use for headaches and 7441 sessions for migraine relief. Just under 90% of the participants reported symptomatic relief from headaches, and 88% reported relief from migraines. The average reductions in severity were 47% and 49%, respectively.
A 2016 study for Pharmacotherapy supports the benefits of cannabis for migraines, specifically. It assessed 121 patients who received medical marijuana on a physician’s recommendation. The average number of migraines per month reduced from 10.4 to 4.6. However, some of the patients experienced adverse effects, including drowsiness and difficulty controlling their dose.
Studies on Cannabis for Cluster Headaches
Another study, this time for Cephalalgia in 2013, looked at cannabis for cluster headaches. It included 139 patients, and 27 had tried marijuana for CH. The results showed that just under 26% found some relief, but 22% experienced the opposite effect.
One possible explanation is that cannabis can increase heart rate and blood pressure while widening the blood vessels. All of these factors could potentially contribute to cannabis triggering a headache.
Research on Cannabinoids for Medication Overuse Headache
A 2012 study for the Journal of Headache and Pain investigated the synthetic cannabinoid nabilone for MOH.
It was a randomized, controlled, crossover trial in which patients took either ibuprofen or nabilone for headaches. The participants did not know which medication they were receiving. After eight weeks, the participants had a medication-free week and then switched to the other drug.
The results showed that nabilone was more effective than ibuprofen in the treatment of MOH. It also helped to reduce dependence on other drugs and improved overall quality of life.
How Does Cannabis Work for Headaches?
Many headaches appear to involve a system called the trigeminovascular pathway. It is a collection of nerve cells that supply the blood vessels in the head. The process relies on a variety of neurochemicals. They include calcitonin gene-related peptide (CGRP) and nitric oxide (NO).
When this system becomes overactive, the blood vessels widen and narrow abnormally, leading to headaches and migraines. Other factors, such as serotonin release and inflammation, may also play a role.
All of the above have an intricate relationship with the body’s endocannabinoid system (ECS). The ECS is responsible for keeping our bodies in balance using chemicals called endocannabinoids. Scientists have hypothesized that a deficiency of these endocannabinoids could be an underlying cause of migraines.
For example, migraine sufferers appear to have reduced levels of endocannabinoids in their cerebrospinal fluid. They also have higher than average levels of CGRP and NO.
Cannabis has a significant impact on the ECS as it contains molecules that mimic the action of endocannabinoids. Therefore, it can impact many of the different elements that contribute to headaches and migraines.
Other potential mechanisms for how cannabis works for headaches include stabilizing serotonin release and reducing inflammation. However, we are only beginning to uncover this complicated relationship. Much more research is necessary before we can fully understand the link between headaches and the ECS.
CBD Oil for Headaches
If you do not have access to medical marijuana for headaches, another option is CBD oil. It is possible to extract CBD from cannabis or hemp, and the latter is widely available throughout the country.
CBD is just one of the medicinal compounds that cannabis produces, and it has many of the benefits of the whole plant. The main difference is that it does not cause users to feel high. CBD is known for a wealth of benefits, including antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and neuroprotective properties.
In terms of using CBD for headaches, it appears to enhance the activity of the ECS by slowing the breakdown of endocannabinoids. It also interacts with serotonin receptors in the brain. Although there is no research specifically on CBD oil for headaches, it may still be worth a try.
Most experts consider it to be safe with minimal risk of side effects. Therefore, it is legal in the majority of places. However, there is a risk of CBD interacting with other medications, so some caution is necessary.
It is also important to note that the CBD market is not well-regulated at present. Therefore, many brands are selling substandard products with little to no cannabinoid content. It is advisable to conduct thorough research before buying CBD oil for headache relief to ensure that you choose a reputable brand.
Cannabis and CBD Oil for Headache Relief: Final Thoughts
Although the research into cannabis and CBD oil for headaches is lacking, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence to support their use. In fact, doctors across the world have been recommending marijuana for headaches for centuries.
Before diving in, be sure to ask a medical professional for guidance. There are some reports that cannabis could make headaches worse, especially cluster headaches. Therefore, careful dosing is essential. It is also important to get an accurate diagnosis to ensure your headaches are not a sign of a serious underlying issue.
Finally, remember to use cannabis responsibly and always check your state’s laws before taking either marijuana or CBD oil for headache relief.