Users report that pain management is always their top reason for using cannabis products that are not intoxicating. It’s not surprising that almost all brands, including those targeting athletes offer topical solutions for itching areas. These topical creams/salves, creams/lotions, patches, sprays, roll-ons/roll-ons, creams and lotions represent a significant advance in sports medicine. Are they just a throwback ineffectively to Bengay’s locker-room scents of decades gone?
It is important to first determine whether topical anti-inflammatory medications do any good. You can buy both prescription medicines and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory topicals (i.e.. diclofenac or ibuprofen) as overthe-counter and prescribed medications. There’s strong evidence that this broad class of products works as per the FDA approval. As with anti-inflammatories administered orally, the goal here is to reduce inflammation and swelling. The idea is to increase the effectiveness of the anti-inflammatories by applying directly to the affected region.
There is support for topicals being applied to “loosening up”, a somewhat absurd practice. A Canadian research published last year concluded that students had greater hip range of motion when they were treated with the menthol-based gel Biofreeze, rather than a placebo. The topicals used to treat inflammation are designed so that they penetrate the skin beyond the outer layer. Canadian researchers found that topicals could be applied to just one leg. However, both hips showed increased range of motion, suggesting that they have a widespread effect.
We can’t really say if topicals are “anything” but it all depends on how you define them. These products typically have pleasant scents (lavender or mint are common) as well as sensations (cooling and warming menthol, warming camphor) which can help you change the woes-is-me narrative. This phenomenon is similar positive Self-Talk Shifting your Attention During a Race or Hard Workout. You’re not actually changing anything physiologically but you’re not as restricted by your duress.
Placebo Isn’t a Four-Letter Word
Right now, you may think, It’s just the placebo effect. You may be right, but that is not as bad an indictment.
Placebos should be believed, not deceived. Plenty of evidence suggests that physiological changes could occur if the person receiving the treatment believes that it will help. spitting in water with a sports drinks is an example of this. The practice won’t work as no fuel enters your bloodstream. But it has been shown repeatedly to improve performance. Take the example of the many athletes who achieve a performance breakthrough quickly after joining a team or getting a coaching change: except for doping, these athletes are unlikely not to be physically different than two weeks prior, but their belief in the new setup is what drives their improvement.
CBD topicals’ effectiveness is likely due to the “plague effect”. Because they can cost twice as much than conventional topicals, you might be more inclined believe they work.
There are however indications of effectiveness, independent of belief. A University of Kentucky Study inducing arthritis simulations in rats. The CBD was applied topically to the site of inflammation in half the rats. This treatment lasted for four consecutive days. CBD treatment made the rats less painful than the rest. After four days, they withdrew their paws as much as before they had been injured. CBD rats also showed significant decreases in inflammation. These included joint swelling, immune-cell activity, and joint swelling. This animal study comes with the usual caveats. However, it seems that the placebo effect doesn’t work in rats.
CBD topicals have a tendency to be highly effective. They bind with cannabinoid receptors when they penetrate the outer skin layer. These receptors could be considered locks on the surface cells that can cause cellular modifications if unlocked. Cannabinoids are the key to this metaphor. These cannabinoids could be either the body’s own endocannabinoids that play a role in exercise euphoria . Or an external source of cannabinoids such as a CBD topical.
The details of what happens with this unlocking remain open to discussion within medical circles. It makes sense that a reduced level of pain could be due to activating the cannabinoid-receptors that are responsible for runners’ highs. There is also a theoretical basis CBD lowering the inflammation by inhibiting some of the same enzymes target by popular non-narcotic pain drugs like naproxen.