The best cannabis for pain might be found in a terpene ratio.
Which kinds of cannabis are best for relieving or managing chronic pain? Think that’s a trick question? Many would say any cannabis plant or product can treat pain. The real question should be: which chemical profiles in cannabis products best manage pain symptoms?
Over the years, it’s become a bit of a custom in our community to recommend specific chemovars – or “strains” – to patients. Referring to plant names carries some downsides, especially since a plant’s name tells us nothing about its chemical composition.
What’s in a Name?
In many ways, strain names serve purely as marketing tactics. Whether it’s sold as “Blue Dream,” “Tangie,” or “OG Kush,” cannabis patients cannot truly verify if the product they purchased corresponds to a strain name found on popular cannabis databases. The Blue Dream you bought may actually be an in-house Blue Dream cross, or it may be a mystery hybrid lacking Blue Dream genetics altogether. Currently, no laws or rules exist requiring dispensaries to prove that their cannabis is the real McCoy. They can take any plant, slap any name on it they want, and sell it as is.
Granted, not every dispensary demonstrates such uncouthness. But many do.
Strains Different From Cultivator to Cultivator
Not all plants grow equally, either. A cultivation’s temperatures, humidities, elevations, and feeding regimens can affect a plant’s terpenoid and cannabinoid ratios. Blue Dream grown by Dispensary A may exhibit a significantly different chemical profile from Blue Dream grown by Dispensary B. (To see how wild this variance can be, check out the results from the Grow-Off competition, where growers start with the same clone of a specific plant and compete to produce a batch with the highest yields, cannabinoid levels, and terpene levels.)
Finally, as demand for cannabis increases, cultivators operate under more and more pressure to grow greater amounts of weed. Cross-breeding plants leads to new progeny, and these new genetics often lead to new names like Purple Afghani Kush and Tangerine Blueberry Dream. These new plants may not appear in the cannabis databases for reference, or they may be hybrids with unique phenotypes that don’t resemble their parents’ at all.
Until a universal catalogue exists that tracks specific chemotypes from seed to sale, no one except breeders can know for sure which plant they possess. Sometimes, even breeders may not know if they received legit seeds or clones from another party.
There’s a Better Way to Find the Right Cannabis for Pain
Instead of relying on strain names, it could help to identify which components of the plant seem to help most with your pain. Although dispensaries can name their plants whatever they want, these plants must undergo lab testing, and (theoretically), dispensaries cannot simply slap whatever values they want to lab test results.
Does CBD work best for your pain, or does THC? No one-size-fits-all answer applies here. Not only does pain management differ from person to person, but it also varies between different kinds of pain.
Experiment. Maybe you suffer from nerve pain which responds better to THC. Or maybe you’re experiencing pain from an inflamed joint, which could respond best to CBD. Or maybe you need a little of both, and would best benefit from buds with balanced levels of CBD and THC.
Don’t forget about the other cannabinoids, either. CBC, CBN, CBG, and a host of others can all provide some pain relief.
Also, try many kinds of cannabis products. If smoking a joint does nothing for your arthritis, try a topical instead. Maybe your menstrual cramps won’t buckle under edibles but taking a dab or two will.
Terpenes as Pain-Management Supplements
Cannabis advocates and marketeers alike tout terpenes as synergistic partners to our favorite cannabinoids. Although some terpenes interact directly with our endocannabinoid system, researchers are still investigating how terpenes affect us when inhaled.
Science possesses some evidence that certain terpenes could manage pain, too. Beta-caryophyllene, myrcene, and pinene show promise as pain regulators, though other compounds in the plant – such as flavonoids – could also aid in pain relief.
Luckily, a growing number of dispensaries now include terpene values on their product labels. Some products will feature greater amounts of certain terpenes over others. When experimenting with cannabis for pain relief, keep track of which terpenes pop up in the most effective products.
Sometimes You Need More Than Cannabis For Pain
Just as every patient – and every source of pain – is different, sometimes cannabis may not work at all. One 2018 study from Australia (ignore its misleading headline) found that cannabis only helped about half of medical cannabis patients for pain, indicating most of us may need to depend on other modes of pain management, such as therapy, exercise, diet, or – gasp! – opioids to function.
You may also discover that a particular product works wonders for your pain. You may not know the terpenoid ratios or whether it contains some miraculous molecule not measured by testing labs. In that case, who cares what it contains? If it works for you, it works for you, and sometimes that’s good enough.