CBD for Headache Relief: Is Marijuana More Effective than Ibuprofen?

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What’s the first thing you reach for when you get a headache? If you’re anything like most people, it’s probably the Advil. Or the Tylenol. Or the generic bottle of ibuprofen — right?

But have you ever stopped to consider how these drugs work? They provide effective and efficient relief for most headaches, sure, but how safe are they – especially when you suffer from frequent headaches and find yourself taking them on a daily basis?

In this article, we’ll take a long-due look at what’s actually happening physiologically when headaches creep their way into your life and ruin your otherwise pleasant day. Also, we’ll talk about the dangers of using OTC (over-the-counter) drugs too frequently, and discuss why CBD for headaches is starting to become the treatment of choice for many thousands of headache and migraine sufferers.

Physiology 101: What makes your head hurt?

There isn’t one specific thing that causes a headache. In fact, there are dozens and dozens of different pathways that can produce the physiological effects and cumbersome symptoms of throbbing cranial pain.

You can get a headache from stress, tooth pain, from drinking too much (i.e. a hangover), from not drinking enough (i.e. dehydration), from skipping out on your morning coffee, from tumors, from concussions, from getting too much sun, and so on and so forth. There are loads of physiological (and even emotional) reasons why we get headaches.

What’s interesting, though, is the fact that our brains themselves can’t even feel pain. Taking this into consideration, how is it even possible to get a headache? And what is a headache? Where does the pain come from? What is it that’s actually hurting?

As it turns out, doctors believe the physical pain from headaches is the result of inflamed tissue and blood vessels in the cranial region, and/or changes in the release of neurochemicals that stimulate nerves and produce pain signals in the central nervous system.

Headaches can occur on one side of the head, all over the head, or in one specific location. It’s important to consider that the cranial region is loaded with complex networks of blood vessels, muscles, soft tissues, and pain-sensitive nerves; when inflammation or other irregularities occur in these structures, the resultant condition is often a throbbing headache.

Thus, it’s not your brain that’s hurting during a headache – it’s the network of blood vessels and fragile tissues that surround it.

Conventional headache treatments and dangers of frequent OTC drug use (Advil, Motrin, Aleve, etc)

So taking into consideration the fact that headaches are the result of inflamed tissue or blood vessels in the cranial region, how do conventional OTC (over-the-counter) drugs work to make them go away?

Medications like ibuprofen (which include the brand names Motrin, Advil, and Aleve) are non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) that have non-addictive analgesic (pain-relieving), antipyretic (fever-reducing), and anti-inflammatory effects. These make them effective options for the onset of headaches, which as discussed above, are the result of inflamed tissues and blood vessels in the region surrounding the head and neck.

Functionally, the drugs work by blocking the production of prostaglandins, which are inflammation-inducing substances produced by the body that are released as a response to illness or injury. 

However, in addition to blocking the release of prostaglandins at the site of inflammation, drugs like Advil and Aleve also inhibit protective prostaglandins that have a functional role in the stomach and kidneys. This is why it’s very important to always take ibuprofen with food – otherwise the prostaglandin inhibition can result in stomach bleeding.

Also, even if you always take OTC headache medications with food, it’s still dangerous to take them on a daily basis. In addition to their inflammatory roles in the cranial region, prostaglandins dilate blood vessels in the kidneys, allowing blood flow to these important organs. Thus, when you take prostaglandin-inhibiting drugs like ibuprofen (especially on a daily basis), you drastically increase the chance of developing chronic kidney conditions such as ischemia, which is the accumulation of dead tissue in the kidney from lack of blood flow.

In addition to NSAIDs, acetaminophen-containing drugs such as Tylenol are also popular and effective headache relievers. However, when taken on a regular basis, they aren’t much better in terms of dangerous and long-term side effects.

In fact, acetaminophen-containing drugs pose even more of a long-term threat to liver functioning than ibuprofen; an FDA advisory committee has actually released statements in the past which propose that limits be set on acetaminophen due to the high risk of liver damage when taken frequently.

In short, while headache-relieving OTC drugs are generally safe when taken sporadically, they can cause very real and serious health conditions when relied on a frequent basis.

Living with frequent headaches and chronic migraines

Anyone who lives with frequent and severe headaches or migraines will tell you that their debilitating-effects are no joke; they’re often more than enough to keep you home from work or school, or from being productive with whatever it is that you need to get done in your day-to-day life.

Also, the onset of severe headaches can cause a host of other physiological conditions as well, including:

  • Severe nausea/vomiting
  • Dizziness/blurred vision
  • Sensitivity to light and/or noise
  • Fever
  • Trouble reasoning, rationalizing, or formulating thoughts
  • Pain that increases with activity

CBD for headache relief: How it works

CBD marijuana strains

So you’ve likely heard before that CBD is a “wonder treatment” of sorts for headaches. But how true is this, if at all? Is it just another myth drummed up by all the potheads who claim cannabis to be some kind of miracle worker?

Well, instead of relying on opinion or anecdotal evidence to answer this question, we can rely on science and physiology to do the speculating for us (hooray for science!).

In terms of how cannabis works to alleviate headaches, we need to first look at the basic functioning of the body’s endocannabinoid system.

The endocannabinoid system, or ECS, is a massive network of endocannabinoids and cannabinoid receptors that exist naturally in the human body. Everyone has a functional ECS, even if they’ve never taken cannabis or smoked marijuana a day in their lives.

Cannabinoid receptors have been found to exist in virtually every single cell and tissue type in the human body, including the vast network of nerves, muscles, and soft tissues in the cranial region. Functionally, it’s believed that the ECS and its network of endocannabinoids and receptors play a crucial role in whole-body homeostasis.

In fact, Dr. Dustin Sulak of the Integr8 Health center in Falmouth, Maine, has gone so far as to call the endocannabinoid system “[perhaps] the most important physiologic system involved in establishing and maintaining human health.”

When you use cannabis (whether it’s smoking flower, taking CBD oil drops, rubbing topicals into your skin, etc) the active cannabinoids in the plant (THC and CBD) will interact with and manipulate natural receptors in the ECS, thereby promoting homeostasis on the whole-body level.

Thus, in the case of headaches (which result from inflammation in structures of the head and neck), CBD interacts with localized ECS receptors to either A) revert neurochemical release back to appropriate levels, or B) reduce headache-inducing inflammation in acute muscles, tissues, and blood vessel networks.

Studies on CBD for headaches

Fortunately, there has actually been a fair amount of research and published studies on cannabis and the physiological role of CBD for headaches.

First, it is  well-documented that CBD is an effective anti-inflammatory. Several studies have shown how cannabinoids interact with the ECS and suppress inflammatory responses in acute tissue regions, which is exactly what happens in the instance of onset headaches and migraines.

A clinical trial released in 2017 showed cannabinoids to be more effective than prescription migraine medications at reducing chronic migraine pain.

The study, which included 127 participants suffering from frequent migraine, portrayed that CBD-containing medications (which also contained some THC) cut migraine pain among all subjects by approximately 43.5%, compared to 40.1% in the corresponding prescription medication. More importantly, however, was the fact that the cannabis-based medication produced far fewer (essentially zero) side effects.

Why CBD?

CBD is becoming incredibly popular for all sorts of medical conditions because unlike THC, it doesn’t get you high. It contains many of the medical benefits of cannabis, with none of the intoxicating effects.

CBD oils are the most potent form of CBD medication, as the carrier oil can contain more active compound by volume than natural flower. Also, CBD derived from hemp is a legal product because it’s NOT extracted from the marijuana plant and has less than .3% THC. 

And lastly, perhaps the biggest draw to CBD-based medications is the fact that they produce almost zero side-effects. We all know the dangers of addiction and overdose that opiate painkillers present, as well as the dangers of liver and kidney complications that are presented by common OTC pain relievers like Aleve and Tylenol. CBD oil, on the other hand, is an all-natural, effective, and incredibly safe medication that has the potential to replace both of these types of synthetic drugs.

The Bottom Line: CBD for headaches

If you do decide to give CBD oil a try for headache relief, it’s important to ensure you’re getting a high-quality CBD product that’s been lab tested for purity and dose accuracy. And you may have to experiment a bit to find a dose that works for you. However, you can breathe a little easier knowing there are some safer and more effective options for tackling those painful headaches!

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