Should You Try CBD or Cannabis Creams for Pain Relief?
Cannabis-infused sports creams claim to offer muscle relief. We spoke to experts to see if they’re worth a shot.
Chances are, you’re no stranger to muscle aches. Well, what if we told you that cannabis creams might help provide relief?
Yes, there’s a new(ish) type of topical ointment on the market, and it’s infused with cannabidiol (CBD) from marijuana. Manufacturers claim it can help alleviate acute pain and muscle soreness. CBD is similar to THC, except it’s non-psychoactive, meaning some researchers view it as the golden child of medicinal use.
Science has confirmed that cannabis is an effective pain reliever, reinforced in a massive new report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. But there’s a big difference between ingesting cannabis or its individual chemicals orally and absorbing it through your skin. Here, the lowdown on this new crop (no pun intended) of pain relievers.
What Exactly Is a CBD-Infused Topical Cream?
The ointment is made from infusing high-quality cannabis flowers in some kind of quality oil-coconut or olive typically-which extracts the active compounds, either CBD, THC, or both depending on the type of hemp used. (Here’s a guide to the difference between THC, CBD, cannabis, and hemp.) This oil is then blended with other therapeutic herbs, like arnica or lemongrass essential oils, that are well-known pain relievers.
If you read the ingredient list, often everything in the jar is straight from mother earth. As long as that’s indeed the case with the cream you have your eye on, the formula is immensely safe, chemically, says Gregory Gerdeman, Ph.D., neurophysiologist who researches cannabinoid biology and pharmacology at Eckerd College in Saint Petersburg, FL. And since they’re formulated to be topical (absorbing into the top layer of skin) and not transdermal (which would pass through the skin and into your bloodstream) there’s no risk of getting high, explains Gerdeman. (P.S. Here’s How Marijuana Affects Athletic Performance.)
“When it comes to cannabis-based topicals for muscle soreness or other pain relief, there’s absolutely no reason why it should be a big deal to try,” he says.
They may be safe, but there’s one massive problem: There’s practically no scientific data to support the idea that a CBD-infused topical cream is any more effective than other topical pain relievers, like Tiger Balm, BenGay, or Icy Hot. Michelle Sexton, a San Diego-based naturopathic doctor and medical research director of the Center for the Study of Cannabis and Social Policy says that her patients do seem to have a great interest in CBD ointments, and roughly 40 percent of them have indeed tried one. However, these people are in her office now because the topicals didn’t work for them. “As a medical professional, my opinion is there’s little evidence to back up the claims being made—it’s all marketing for now,” she says.
How CBD and Cannabis Pain-Relief Creams Work
There is an argument to be made for the simple fact that science hasn’t caught up to the trend (and laws) of cannabis yet. (Here’s what research has to say about the potential benefits of CBD and cannabis so far.) And there are doubtlessly researchers testing the efficacy of CBD creams for pain relief as we speak.
The theoretical logic is there, Gerdeman says. What, exactly, is that thinking? Well, there are a few different ways CBD could help regulate pain—by increasing your natural endocannabinoids, decreasing your inflammatory response, and desensitizing your pain receptors (although it’s still unclear whether this stands when absorbed topically compared to orally).
Let’s start simple: Endocannabinoids are natural signals in your body that help maintain homeostasis by detecting and regulating hunger, pain, mood, and memory. (They’re actually part of your post-workout exercise high.) CBD helps elevate your natural levels of pain-relieving endocannabinoids by blocking metabolism as they’re moving around your body.
The second method of pain relief centers around the damage you do when you work out. When you strength train, you create micro-tears in your muscles, which is why you feel sore as you heal. Once your immune cells detect damage, they release inflammatory mediators in order to repair the tissue. CBD, though has the ability to limit the release of some proinflammatory signals, thereby helping with pain without thwarting the healing entirely, Gerdeman explains.
Finally, you have receptors called TrpV1 that detect and regulate your body temperature. When activated, they put out heat, soothing your pain receptors. Using this channel, CBD makes these pain receptors hyperactive for a period of time, causing them to get hot, desensitizing them and downregulating those pain-sensing nerve endings.
What Science Says About CBD Creams
Phew—enough of that biology lesson. The real problem here is that all of this has yet to be proven in scientific studies on humans.
A study analysis in Journal of Pain Research confirms that topical use of certain cannabinoid topicals can reduce pain in animals with inflammation or neuropathic pain. And science has found topical creams with THC and CBD help relieve pain for conditions like multiple sclerosis. But for the vast majority of chronic pain—and most certainly for acute pain like post-workout—the scientific jury is 100 percent still out. “There’s a little bit of data in support of CBD for pain relief, but to go from animal to human is a giant leap,” Sexton says.
“The pain and stiffness that comes post-workout or from overexertion certainly has a pro-inflammatory component to it, so it’s reasonable to think CBD or other cannabinoids might have benefits, but we have no research to support this yet,” Gerdeman adds.
The other issue? Topical CBD and cannabis creams will treat anatomical structures within 1 centimeter of the skin—and the muscle where your actual soreness is located is going to be deeper than that, explains Ricardo Colberg, M.D., a physician at Andrews Sports Medicine and Orthopaedic Center in Birmingham, AL. (The good news: Since it doesn’t need to be absorbed deeply, CBD and cannabis could do amazing things as a skincare ingredient.)
The fatty tissue can only hold so much oil, so, theoretically, if you apply enough of a CBD cream to your skin, it might leak down into your skeletal muscle just out of diffusion, Sexton adds. But there’s no study to show this, and that means you’re going to be rubbing on a whole lot of the stuff.
This takes us to the next problem: There is no regulation around how much active CBD or THC is in each cream or how much of the compound is needed to see relief. Read: “If you have three products that say 1 percent CBD infused in coconut oil, one could be great and the other two could be crap—that’s the reality of cannabis medicine right now,” Gerdeman says. (See: How to Buy Safe and Effective CBD Products)
So. Should I Try It?
That’s not to say CBD creams definitely won’t reduce your acute pain or muscle soreness. That’s because pretty much all of these creams on the market right now have other scientifically-proven analgesic compounds, like menthol, camphor, and capsaicin which are also found in other, non-CBD topical pain relievers. “Any cream with a heating or cooling sensation desensitizes the nerves to pain by distracting them with stimuli on top,” Dr. Colberg explains. Plus you’re often massaging the area as you apply, which improves circulation and reduces muscle spasms, he adds. (Get the best of both worlds by trying a CBD massage.)
So do you need the CBD? All our experts agree that until we have more peer-reviewed research, all claims are marketing hype and not evidence-based. (Or, they can be anecdotal. Read what happened when one woman tried CBD for anxiety.)
But there is an argument to be made for simply believing the CBD adds that special something. “Scientific literature says there’s a 33 percent chance of the placebo effect helping people, so for some, just using a cream they believe can help will provide some relief,” Dr. Colberg adds.
The short of it: Science hasn’t confirmed creams with CBD will have any greater benefit than those without, but there’s little-to-no risk in trying it out (other than wasting your money, of course). And if you believe in the power of CBD-infused creams, that may be enough to score some relief. (Consider trying these: Products That Personal Trainers Use to Relieve Muscle Soreness)
Cannabis-infused sports creams and CBD creams and rubs claim to offer muscle relief. But do they really work? Here's what you need to know about cannabis and CBD creams for pain.
The Best CBD Creams for Pain, According to Experts
Pain is a universal experience, one many people are all too familiar with. The search for pain relief is one reason why cannabidiol (CBD), a non-psychoactive herbal remedy, is quickly gaining popularity. But with so many options on the market it can be hard to find a quality CBD topical for pain.
In this article, we’ll look at the best CBD creams for pain, which have been medically reviewed by Ashley Jordan Ferira, PhD, RDN.
Our favorite topical CBD products include soothing creams, balms, salves, and lotions, all of which are made from American-grown hemp and have been independently tested by third-party labs for quality and safety purposes.
Our top 5 CBD creams for pain at a glance:
- Strongest CBD Cream: Spruce Full-Spectrum CBD Topical Salve
- Best THC-Free: Medterra CBD Pain Cream
- Best for Recovery: Plant People Relief Balm
- Best Cool Therapy: CBDistillery CBD Cooling Cream
- Best Full Spectrum: FAB CBD Topical Cream
Can CBD cream actually help with pain?
As it turns out, topical CBD products may offer some anti-inflammatory properties to help alleviate pain through cannabinoid receptors within the skin. These receptors are a part of the body’s endocannabinoid system, or ECS, that governs functions such as our ability to process pain, as well as inflammation, mood, and sleep. The cannabis plant contains phytocannabinoids like CBD that interact with our ECS, which is why hemp has therapeutic properties.
CBD has been shown in clinical studies to help with pain-specific medical conditions including chronic pain, peripheral neuropathy, pain and inflammation, arthritis pain, and myofascial pain. Cannabinoids can also help improve pain in patients receiving palliative care. A 2020 cross-sectional study found that nearly 25% of outpatient palliative care patients use CBD, with topical application being the most common form used.
What to look for in a CBD topical
These are some of the most important considerations when selecting most CBD oil products, including topicals like a CBD pain cream.
- Quality control: A brand should display recent third-party lab testing results.
- Hemp source: We recommend you buy brands that make products from US-grown hemp.
- Extraction method: CO2 and ethanol extraction methods are considered robust.
- Brand reputation: Check out CBD brand reviews for specifics. Brand longevity and size can be relevant, but some newer, smaller brands are serious about quality, too.
- Strength/potency: No clinical consensus exists yet to inform dosing, as it depends on your personal needs and pain response. Hemp oil topical products vary in CBD milligrams per ounce.
- Type of hemp extract: Full-spectrum (whole hemp plant extract, contains no more than 0.3% THC); broad-spectrum extract (full spectrum of cannabinoids minus THC); CBD isolate (just CBD).
The best 5 CBD creams for pain
Now that we’ve explored the background on CBD topicals and how they might aid in pain management, let’s dive into our top five product recommendations for the best CBD cream for pain. Continue on to learn more about CBD cream usage and selecting the product right for you.
Strongest CBD Cream: Spruce Full Spectrum Topical CBD Salve
Spruce has tight control and full visibility of its CBD product manufacturing process from the hemp farm to the shelf, and its hemp extracts are designed to deal with muscle and joint pain. If you want a CBD cream for back pain this may be a good hemp cream to try. Its branding is also clean and minimalistic, making the facts easy to find.
- Strength: 1000 mg CBD in 0.87 oz. jar or 2000 mg CBD in 1.7 oz. jar
- Product: This hemp cream is full-spectrum and contains other moisturizing ingredients like olive oil, shea butter, and coconut oil. The salve rubs in smoothly without leaving a shiny finish
- Customer review:“This topical CBD cream out performs any other OTC cream I have tried for arthritic pain. I would not only recommend the product, I also recommend Spruce CBD. They delivered a well packaged product on time with excellent communication along the way. Five stars for both the product and customer service from Spruce CBD!”
Salve available in several jar sizes
Best THC Free: Medterra CBD Pain Cream
Medterra goes above and beyond when it comes to quality standards and transparency. It follows cGMPs for topical manufacturing, and its products are formulated with soothing natural ingredients to alleviate pain sensations. Every Medterra product has a detailed third-party lab report available that breaks down cannabinoid and terpene content, as well as pesticide and heavy-metal testing. This is a great CBD lotion to try if you want to avoid THC.
- Strength: 500 mg or 1,000 mg of CBD in a 1.7 oz. pump
- Product: This brand offers several CBD topical options, but this cream is specifically formulated to aid in pain relief with the help of high-strength CBD isolate, menthol, and arnica.
- Customer review:“I have a chronic ankle pain and it has kept me from running for 2 years. This cream takes the pain away like nothing else has done. Ready to try jogging again!”
Available in 17 oz. pump bottle
Best Topical for Recovery: Plant People Relief Balm
Plant People prides itself in selling high-quality hemp products, which are organic, lab-tested, non-GMO, and gluten free. The brand’s Balm+ Relief topical ingredient list specifically calls out other cannabinoids present, including cannabichromene (CBC) and cannabigerol (CBG). Plant People is also a certified B Corp, making this a pain cream from a top-notch organization.
- Strength: 450 mg of CBD in a 2 oz. container
- Product: This unique balm makes it easier than ever to apply to affected areas, especially when you’re trying to alleviate sore muscles and aching joints after a workout. The hemp is full-spectrum and is accompanied by other plant botanicals like arnica and peppermint extract to promote soothing recovery.
- Customer review:“Product worked to reduce pain immediately. I almost didn’t believe it however results were consistent each time used. Great product!”
Balm available in 2 oz. jar
Best Cool Therapy: CBDistillery Cooling Cream
This pain relief cream expertly combines broad spectrum CBD extract and other beneficial ingredients to promote joint support and reduce inflammation. Each bottle is made from Colorado-grown hemp plant extract, and this cream is also completely THC-free. All CBDistillery products are fully lab tested and made in America, so you can trust that its products are of the highest quality. CBD cream reviews usually include CBDistillery because of the value the brand offers. The brand also makes one of the best CBD oils.
- Strength: 300 mg of CBD in a 1.7 fl.oz. bottle
- Product: This topical cream incorporates menthol to create a soothing, cooling sensation that lasts for hours, among other skin-benefiting ingredients like sunflower seed oil and aloe vera leaf juice
- Customer review:“I use it in the morning and after workouts! Works great and it doesn’t have the strong after smell that other cooling creams have!”
To buy: 300mg CBDistillery Cooling Cream; thecbdistillery.com
Cream available in pump bottle
Best Full Spectrum: FAB CBD Topical CBD Cream
FAB is devoted to providing people with the best quality CBD it can. All of FAB’s CBD products are made from hemp organically grown in Colorado. FAB is community-oriented and regularly collaborates with charity partners. A full spectrum, or “whole plant,” therapy may offer additional benefits when compared to other CBD topicals for pain.
- Strength: 600 mg of CBD in 2 oz. tub
- Product: FAB cream is strong product at a good price, and applies smoothly with the addition of vitamin E and cocoa butter. We really like the addition of blood orange essential oil in this topical, which makes it smell great
- Customer review:“How did I live without this? This product is fabulous. I can walk the stairs, take long walks now and I feel great.”
Available in 2 oz tub
How to use CBD lotions and topicals
Since CBD topicals work on localized pain, the first step is to identify your problem area(s). You’ll then want to carefully clean and dry the area before applying a small amount of the topical on your skin to start.
Cannabinoids have low skin permeability, so you can dose up and apply more of the topical based on how you feel. Spend some time really working it into your skin, massaging gently as you go.
Once you’ve finished applying, you can wash your hands and wait. Most CBD lotions will take a few minutes before they kick in, but can peak one to two hours later. You may need to reapply a few times a day for full effect.
Do topical CBD products have side effects?
While CBD is safe for use, there are a few caveats you’ll want to keep in mind when incorporating a hemp topical into your pain-management regimen.
- Broken skin: Be sure you read the product label thoroughly as not all CBD topicals are designed to be used on broken skin.
- Carrier oils: If you have sensitive skin, allergies, or your skin is prone to irritation, be sure to check the label to see what kind of carrier oil your product contains.
- Facial application: Most CBD topicals formulated for pain relief are designed to be used on the body and not for facial application. Some brands will call this out explicitly.
Is CBD cream right for you?
CBD topicals are a great herbal strategy to help with localized aches and pains, and they are generally considered safe to use. However, the FDA has yet to evaluate mainstream CBD skincare products, which is why you should always do your research and aim to purchase from high-quality companies. If you or your loved one are seeking the best CBD cream for pain, our recommendations are a great place to start.
This article has been medically reviewed by Ashley Jordan Ferira, PhD, RDN, the Senior Editor of Health & Wellness Strategy at Remedy Review, an independent CBD reviews site. Dr. Ferira completed her PhD in Foods & Nutrition at The University of Georgia, where she researched the role of vitamin D in pediatric cardiometabolic disease. The products featured in this article were tested at ProVerde Laboratories in Milford, MA and Avazyme, Inc. in Durham, NC.
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The global burden of pain is massive. Vetted for source and quality, we present the best CBD cream for pain in this buyer’s guide of top hemp topicals.