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CBD for muscle pain: Topicals and pills can help, but research is limited

Does CBD actually work for muscle pain? We explore what the research says and whether topics or oral supplements are better.

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CBD has anti-inflammatory properties that might help relieve soreness.

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People use CBD for everything: According to anecdotal accounts, the cannabis-derived chemical is a sleep aid, a stress killer, a natural pain reliever and a performance enhancer. People even use it on their pets

CBD is also gaining popularity as an alternative to traditional over-the-counter pain relief pills and as a fitness supplement to help with muscle recovery. But do those products actually work? Are they better than popping ibuprofen or rubbing a menthol cream on your sore muscles?

There are hundreds of CBD products to choose from, both oral and topical, and the type you choose might make all the difference for your aches and pains.

How topical CBD works for muscle soreness and pain

The promise is simple -- slather on a cream or gel with CBD where it hurts to relieve pain. But whether or not they actually work is another story.

Topical CBD has only been minimally studied, says Stuart Titus, CEO of Medical Marijuana, Inc. "Generally, there are also herbs or other 'skin-penetrating' ingredients in the final formulation of topical CBD products," Titus says. "Other ingredients such as arnica or menthol are added in order to make product claims such as pain relief."

In many cases, Titus explains, the concentration of CBD is often low in topical products, and the soothing sensation you feel is a product of the other ingredients. It's important for consumers to review not only the ingredients list, but also the certificate of analysis, which reveals the total concentration of different cannabinoids in a product. 

A CoA shows the weight percentage of CBD and other cannabinoids, including THC, so only then can you interpret the amount of CBD per "serving" of topical application, Titus says. Make sure the CoA is done by an independent, third-party lab, too.

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Is CBD the cure to nagging sore muscles?

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That said, high-quality, potent topical CBD products are thought to offer temporary relief from pain and soreness. There's a high concentration of cannabinoid receptors in the skin, and when CBD is applied topically, it activates the endocannabinoid system through those receptors. CBD binds to the cannabinoid receptors in your epidermal and dermal skin, a process that results in alleviation of pain and inflammation. The anti-inflammatory effect is also why topical CBD is an effective treatment for some skin disorders.

Topical CBD only works where you use it -- applying CBD cream to your legs when your abs are sore won't do you any good. This can be a benefit or a drawback depending on your situation. For example, if you tend to experience full-body soreness, you'd have to use a lot of CBD cream for relief and that can get tedious and expensive. 

Just remember, human skin is incredibly absorptive and it'll absorb more than just the CBD in topical creams, gels and oils. Check the ingredients label to make sure you're not applying something you're allergic to or something that, if absorbed, can interact with medications. If you're unsure, talk to your doctor. 

How oral CBD works for muscle soreness and pain

While topical CBD only offers localized relief, oral CBD should have a systemic effect if the product is potent and reliable, Titus says. Oral CBD works just the same as topical CBD, but on a much larger scale, because it enters your bloodstream and can reach cannabinoid receptors throughout your entire body. 

Oral CBD is believed to have strong anti-inflammatory effects, and as inflammation is the root of most pain, it makes perfect sense that ingesting CBD could offer relief from inflammation-related pain, including muscle aches and joint pain.

Keep in mind that the majority of studies on the effects of CBD on soreness and pain to date have been small-scale; most large studies have been conducted on animals, and those results may not translate to humans. There's a long way to go until all the effects of CBD -- taken orally or applied topically -- are confirmed. 

It's also worth knowing that the Food and Drug Administration has yet to approve CBD as a food additive or dietary supplement. The agency has concerns about the safety of ingested CBD due to the lack of large-scale, long-term studies in humans, and has concluded that there isn't enough evidence to declare CBD safe to consume. Regardless, oral CBD is widely available and legal in many states. Talk to a health professional about oral CBD if you're interested in using it for muscle soreness or any other type of pain.   

Should you use topical or oral CBD for soreness? 

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Whether you should use topical or oral CBD for pain and soreness depends on the source and intensity of your pain. Based on the above research and comments from Medical Marijuana's Titus, here's a look at common uses of CBD and which type will best help. 

CBD for post-workout muscle soreness: A high-quality topical CBD should help treat temporary muscle soreness from workouts, Titus says. One recent study found that oral CBD can also reduce muscle soreness when taken immediately after a workout.

CBD for chronic muscle pain: Topical CBD can help during flare-ups, but you're better off taking oral CBD for systemic pain. A combination can be especially helpful, Titus says. Ingesting CBD helps relieve pain from the inside out, while applying topical cream can quiet particularly tender areas. 

CBD for joint pain: Topical CBD likely won't reach cannabinoid receptors in your joints no matter how potent. Oral CBD is more likely to help people with pain from arthritis and other joint conditions. People with pain from fibromyalgia will also benefit more from ingestible CBD, Titus says.

CBD for general muscle tightness and tension: For general muscle tightness (such as tension in the neck from a long day at your desk), high-quality topical CBD can offer much-needed temporary relief. 

Overall, the effectiveness of CBD varies depending on the product, the intended use and the person. Some people find CBD helpful while others don't notice much of an effect, whether they take it orally or apply it topically. It might take a lot of research and experimentation until you find a CBD product that works for you. 

Other ways to treat muscle soreness and pain

If you're not ready to hop on the CBD bandwagon, try these other methods for relieving sore and tight muscles

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.