Topicals: A Revelation in Treating Pain with Cannabis
By Andrea Brooks, Sava Founder
A Journey From Pain to Wellness
My personal journey into the cannabis industry started with my own pain. Several years ago I was the program director for a San Francisco human and social services nonprofit, doing a job that I absolutely loved, when an injury caused systemic nerve damage and prevented me from being able to sit and use the computer for the long hours required, as well as other routine daily activities. The two years that followed were some of the harder times of my life, while I struggled to find a new way of caring for my body–one that would allow me to be pain free.
Living with chronic pain required me to do a lot of research and learning, and a lot of experimentation. I quickly realized that the side effects from pharmaceuticals were best avoided and thus began my trial and error with alternative forms of medicine. I always knew smoking cannabis could alleviate pain, but I’ve since learned that there is so much more to using cannabis than simply picking up a joint. Ultimately, cannabis and a solid self-care routine is what brought me back to health.
Beyond the Smoke
At first I turned to smoking flower for pain relief. It did wonders–especially now that there is so much information available on strain types. The only downside of the some of the flower was I felt too high. I wanted to get back to life as usual and although I’ve always enjoyed smoking a joint from time to time, I’ve never been an all day every day smoker. I needed to find a way to manage my pain and stay more clear-minded.
As the medical cannabis industry has grown, we’ve seen an explosion in other methods of consumption. Learning about these products gave me a vast toolkit. Edibles and tinctures offer a discreet, easy to measure dose of cannabis available in many configurations. Some are low-dose, some are for sleep, some are high-CBD, and the list goes on. These products have been life-savers. But by far one class of products has helped me day in and day out more than any other is topicals.
Topicals - What Are They?
Topicals are a way to apply cannabis directly to your skin. Formulas come in many forms including oils, balms, salves, and lotion bars. Topicals are not psychoactive so you will not feel high after using them.
How Do They Work?
Applying a topical is a transdermal method of ingesting cannabis – meaning it goes through your skin. They work by binding to a network of receptors called CB2 that are found throughout the body and are activated either by the body’s naturally-occurring endocannabinoids or by cannabis compounds known as phytocannabinoids.
When you apply most topicals, the cannabinoids don’t enter the bloodstream so you will not have a psychoactive experience. The two exceptions are with transdermal patches, which will deliver THC to the bloodstream and can cause psychoactive effects and cannabis-infused soaks, which allow THC to be absorbed through the colon. However, with lotions, salves, and the like, you can use them to relieve pain in a specific area while going about your day.
Penetration vs. Absorption
In skincare, there is a difference between penetration and absorption. Skin penetration refers to the amount of a topically applied compound that exists between the top layer of skin, the stratum corneum, and the bottom layer of skin, the stratum basale. During penetration, the body does not absorb the compound so it does not affect the body systems. Skin absorption refers to the process where the compound breaks the skin barrier and enters the bloodstream.
Many factors influence penetration and absorption, including how thick the skin is in the area a formula is applied and the type of formula being applied. Most topicals will not pass the skin barrier and absorb into the bloodstream, but patches, for example, have been made with molecules small enough to do so.
Body Oils, Lotions, and Salves
Through my experimentation, I found each of these formulas have their own purposes.
Body Oils – Coupling cannabis with self-massage (or massage from someone else if you’re lucky) can dramatically increase the therapeutic effects. Body oils stay on the skin long enough to provide lubrication for deeper massage, releasing of knots and tension.
Salves and Balms – These absorb into the skin a bit faster and they are less messy to use, making them my go to for portable relief. Keeping a jar in my purse to apply as needed has been a lifesaver on many occasions. Salves and balms provide enough oil for some massage, but will sink into your skin faster than oil.
Body Butters – Butters are one step down on the oily scale from salves and balms. Another great choice for relief on the go, body butters made with a natural butter base such as mango, shea, or cocoa. In my experience, the natural butters carry enough scent that they are the predominant smell, not the cannabis.
Lotions – the lightest in texture and oiliness, these will penetrate your skin the fastest. They are not good for massage, but they are great if you want to apply something under your clothes that will leave no mess.
Lotion Bars – lotion bars are solid bars that melt when applied to skin. Often made from a combination of natural butters and oils, these are great for an at home massage treatment.
Soaks – A newer trend on the cannabis market are bath salts and bath bombs. Fill your tub, add the product, and soak. While you’re relaxing in the tub, the cannabis is penetrating your outer skin layers while also being absorbed by your colon. This leaves you with a very light psychoactive experience that is somewhere between very calm and slightly high.
…That Smells Nice
Some topicals have stronger cannabis scents than others. There are several options that do not smell like cannabis at all, offering you relief in places where you’d prefer not to unleash the smell of cannabis. Some companies add additional ingredients, such as wintergreen, eucalyptus, and lavender add to the experience. Some topicals are heating and some are cooling. Try a few to find your favorites.
What Can I Use Them For?
For Inflammation and Arthritis – CBD has anti-inflammatory properties. If you’d like to combat inflammation or pain related to arthritis, look for a high CBD topical.
For Cramps – Topicals calm menstrual cramps. I’ve found body oils to be very effective, especially if applied to both the lower back and lower abdomen and paired with a hot water bottle.
For Sore Muscles – Soaking after a workout or self-massage with an oil will leave you less sore the next day.
For Better Sleep – a thorough rub down before bed with any topical makes me sleep more soundly. My body relaxes more deeply as I drift off into my dreams.
A Self-Care Routine
Finding a way to handle pain that didn’t make me high was a game-changer. But cannabis alone is not a magic bullet. Developing a self-care routine was invaluable to my recovery. For some techniques, such as massage, pairing with cannabis magnified the healing effects.
Stretching – Developing a 10-15 minute routine at the beginning and end of your day can make a world of difference. Luckily, the internet abounds with yoga and stretching videos if you’d like inspiration.
Movement – A vital part of each day, especially if your job requires you to sit in one place. A brief daily walk or getting up once per hour move a bit will make the world of difference. Topical balm can be used in advance of any activity to loosen muscles, as well as be applied afterwards to soothe soreness.
Massage and other Body Work – Massage alone is magnificently healing. Pairing it with a cannabis brings another level of relaxation. While a professional body worker will reach very deep levels of healing, self-massage on a regular basis is also fantastic.
Mini Foot Spa – While integrating massage into your life is a worthwhile luxury due to the health benefits, it’s not always possible to get a massage. Doing your own mini foot spa is another at-home, accessible self-care routine. Our feet carry so much tension a foot spa can release. Try a cannabis soak and rub some bath salts into your feet to exfoliate. Follow with an oil applied with massage. If you want to take it to another level, look at a reflexology chart and target areas specific to your tension.
Take A Minute to Breathe – Much like stretching, just a few minutes each day makes a world of difference. While I was initially skeptical, meditation taught me a way to stay grounded during a flare up. I developed a pre-meditation ritual of rubbing some of my favorite scented topical into my temples and neck beforehand, helping me to settle in.
As I’ve come to find is often the case for providers of cannabis medicine, it was my own discovery of the vast and varied healing properties of this plant that inspired me to share it with others. In 2015 I founded Sava, a marketplace for high-quality, hand-crafted cannabis goods. My hope is to share detailed information on use and dosage with patients while also providing access to safe, consistent medicine.