Updated on January 30, 2019.
Medical content reviewed by Dr. Joseph Rosado, MD, M.B.A, Chief Medical Officer
Cannabis has long been used to treat a variety of ailments from chronic pain to inflammation to headaches. However, there’s far more to using marijuana for pain relief than sparking up a joint and going about your day. When it comes to maximizing the benefits of cannabis, you should consider a variety of factors: what type of pain do you suffer from, when do you plan on consuming cannabis and how do you want to feel? These factors play a significant role in choosing the right marijuana strain to manage your pain.
Cannabis strains are known for their entertaining and colorful names, but few actually give any indicator as to what kind of relief they provide. Not to mention, the wide variety of available strains can make it difficult to choose the right option. Medical marijuana has become an increasingly popular alternative to opioids in treating pain, so we put together this guide that will help you navigate your way through some of the most popular pain relieving strains on the market.
How Does Marijuana Provide Pain Relief?
The concept of marijuana for pain relief is a complex system. Flowers of the cannabis plant contain chemical compounds called cannabinoids, commonly known as THC and CBD. These make up two of 85 cannabinoids found in the marijuana plant that provide relief from a variety of pain symptoms. Cannabinoids do so by imitating compounds our bodies naturally produce — endocannabinoids, which activate to maintain internal stability and health.
When cannabis is consumed, cannabinoids bind to receptor sites throughout the brain (CB-1) and body (CB-2). Different cannabinoids have different effects depending on which receptors they bind to. For example, THC binds to receptors in the brain whereas CBD targets receptors located throughout the body. Because the cannabinoid profile of each cannabis strain varies, different types of relief are achievable.
We experience a variety of pain, but all types fall into three general categories:
Nociceptive pain — Caused from physical damage to the body in response to a specific situation. It tends to go away as the affected body part heals.
Neuropathic pain — Develops when the nervous system is damaged or not working properly due to disease or injury.
Central pain — Is a neurological condition caused by damage to or dysfunction of the central nervous system.
Since each type of pain has a different origin, an optimal treatment strategy can be put into play using strains with a specific cannabinoid profile.
Indica vs. Sativa
Before diving into specific strains for pain relief, it’s important to understand the basic premise of Indica vs. Sativa. Not only do these two categories represent the majority of strains consumed, but they offer different effects for the consumer. These popular choices are offered at most dispensaries around the country, in addition to hybrids strains.
Indicas are known for their relaxing high. People often describe the experience as a strong body high with feelings of “couch lock.” Indicas are typically strong, sedative strains that are great for treating severe pain and are perfect for an evening high when you don’t have much to do.
Sativas offer the opposite experience from Indicas because they induce a cerebral high. People often describe the feeling as energetic and uplifting, accompanied by psychoactive effects. Since these don’t put you to sleep, they are a better choice for a day-time high.
Many cannabis strains that are available at your local dispensary are considered hybrids. Hybrids strains contain a mix of sativa and indica genetics, and while each hybrid has its own unique characteristics, these strains are typically known for known for inheriting the most favorable aspects associated with each of their parents. The idea with hybrids is that the consumer gets to experience the best of both worlds. Maybe you enjoy the heavy body high for treating severe pain, but also want the uplifting cerebral feeling that comes with sativas. In this case, a hybrid might be the right choice for you.
CBD vs. THC
Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and Cannabidiol (CBD) represent two of the most important components that make up the cannabis plant. While they are nearly identical in molecular structure, they interact with the body in very different ways.
In a nutshell, THC is the component of the plant that provides the notorious cannabis high. THC offers tremendous health benefits, but its mind-altering effects aren’t preferred by everyone. CBD, on the other hand, does not induce a psychoactive experience, although it does interact with receptors in the brain to exert pain-relieving and anti-inflammatory effects.
When it comes to marijuana for pain, cannabis strains with high amounts of both THC and CBD tend to make the best pain medicines. The percentage of CBD and THC will vary by strain, so it’s also important to consider how high you want to be. Strains with a higher CBD to THC ratio will give you less of the psychoactive effects compared to a strain that has a high percentage of THC and little to no CBD.
Best Marijuana for Pain: 11 Strains for Relief
With the plant basics in mind, now it’s time to look at the best marijuana for pain management. We rounded up 11 popular strains to discuss how and what kinds of pain each cannabis strain is best for. Some provide relief from multiple ailments, while others are great for specific pain.
Blue Dream is a sativa dominant hybrid with origins in California. This especially popular West Coast strain is a cross between Blueberry indica and sativa Haze giving you a balance between full body relaxation and an uplifting cerebral high that is good for both novice and experienced smokers. Blue Dream has a THC content of 17-24% and low CBD content of 2%. When it comes to treating pain, this strain is most common for headaches, depression and stress.
Grandaddy Purple is a popular indica with California roots. It’s a cross between Purple Urkle and Big Bud with an distinct berry aroma. This heavy indica is a popular choice for consumers seeking relief from a variety of pain symptoms such as headaches and muscle spasms. Because Grandaddy Purple offers a heavy body high, it’s best to smoke in the evening when you can fully relax and enjoy its couch lock effects. This strains falls somewhere around 20% THC and 1% CBD.
Marijuana Strains for Cramps and Muscle Soreness
Maybe you recently got a great workout at the gym and that muscle soreness has finally set in. If you’ve experienced this feeling before, you know it can be difficult to relax. Certain marijuana strains are great for putting your muscles at ease and helping relieve the cramps that can occur post workout. Additionally, these strains can be incredibly helpful for women who suffer from severe menstrual cramps. Try ditching the Midol or Ibuprofen and visit your local dispensary for one of these strains.
White Widow is a legendary classic that was first grown in the Netherlands and is incredibly popular world wide. This hybrid is a cross between a Brazilian sativa and an indica from South India. White Widow is a classic is found in just about any Dutch cafe and dispensaries closer to home. This potent strain is best for nighttime use due to its potent effects, with a THC content that typically falls between 18% and 25%.
Redwood Kush is an indica dominant hybrid that sits around 13% THC. Its strong calming effects are great for muscle tension and overall body relaxation. Many consumers tend to feel spacey and unable to focus, so this strain is best for evening use. Much like it’s name suggests, Redwood Kush is notorious for its earthy pine smell that will make your feel like you’re walking through a Northern California forest.
Arthritis is one of the most common ailments in our elderly population — affecting the joints and surrounding tissues. Its inflammatory effects cause extreme discomfort that affect roughly 54 million Americans. Because CBD offers excellent anti-inflammatory relief, marijuana strains that are especially CBD rich are a good choice for individuals who suffer from arthritis. These strains will provide the relief you need with little to no psychoactive effects, and drowsy feelings.
Over the years, Harlequin has gone by a variety of names, but it’s consistently used for strong pain relief. Because this strain offers a high CBD to THC ratio, 10% THC and 12% CBD, it’s incredibly effective for treating arthritis and inflammation without the consumer feeling too high. This is a perfect strain to relieve pain while going about your day with a clear head.
ACDC is another CBD rich strain that is especially useful for treating pain from arthritis and inflammation. At 19% CBD and only 3% THC, most consumers will feel little to no cerebral high. This is a perfect strain for new consumers who are unsure of their desire to experience a strong high but still need help controlling pain.
Cannabis Strains for Severe Pain
You might suffer from severe pain for a variety of reasons. Maybe you recently underwent surgery or experienced a severe injury. Whatever the case may be, when it comes to severe pain, hybrid strains are often a good choice because they offer heavy euphoric feelings with uplifting, pain relieving effects.
When it comes to pain relief, Purple Arrow is the gold standard. This indica dominant hybrid is potent without giving the over-medicated feeling that comes with many indica strains. At 15-17% THC, Purple Arrow offers uplifting and immediate relief for severe pain, which also makes it a great choice for migraines. It’s not uncommon to feel mild couch lock, so this strain is usually best to try in the evening.
OG Kush is a go-to for experienced consumers who suffers from severe and chronic pain. This iconic California hybrid is notorious for making up the backbone of many West Coast strains and offers a strong cerebral high and heavy euphoric feeling that can crush the stress of severe pain. Be warned that at roughly 24% THC, this isn’t the best choice for novice consumers and is recommended for nighttime use.
Chronic pain is one of the most common reasons adults seek medical care. Approximately 20 percent of U.S. adults have chronic pain, with 8 percent suffering from high-impact chronic pain — pain that limits at least one major life activity. Chronic pain is also heavily linked to a dependence on opioids, anxiety and depression and an overall poor quality of life. Because chronic pain is so common, these cannabis strains are a great substitute for traditional pain medications, each offering a variety of highs.
This cannabis variety is named after the renowned cannabis activist, Jack Herer. As a hybrid, this iconic powerhouse strain captures both the cerebral elevation associated with sativas and the heavy body high of indicas. At roughly 18-23% THC, it’s a great way to ease pain and inflammation any time of the day.
Blackberry Kush is an indica dominant strain that offers a heavy high giving consumers a dreamy, blissful euphoria to lift the pain. Much like its name suggests, it’s known for sweet flavors and a berry aroma. As an indica at 13% THC, this strain is good for managing a variety of general and chronic pain. We recommend this strain for nighttime use.
Sour Diesel, commonly referred to as sour D, is an uplifting sativa hybrid named after its pungent, diesel-like aromas. With a THC content of 12-24% and CBD levels at 2%, it’s a fast-acting strain that is specifically helpful for chronic pain patients. Sour Diesel is a popular choice for the daytime because it offers an energizing, cerebral high that keeps the brain going. It’s a good choice for tackling the to-do list when you don’t want the setbacks of daily pain.
The beauty about using marijuana for pain management, is the variety of options a consumer has. Whether you’re a veteran interested in medical marijuana or the nagging pains of arthritis have plagued you for years, there’s a strain to match your needs. While these are some of the most popular varieties across the country for pain management, this list only scratches the surface. Always inqure with the budtender at your local dispensary to see what other strains are comparable.