The cannabis plant contains more than 540 chemicals, including more than 100 active chemicals known as cannabinoids that are only found in the world in the cannabis plant. The two most abundant cannabinoids are tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD).

Products that contain significant amounts of the intoxicating ingredient THC are often referred to as “marijuana” which is a slang term. In this article, we use the proper scientific term “cannabis” throughout to refer to any products derived from the cannabis plant.

Many people anecdotally report cannabis helping them manage their arthritis pain, but most of the scientific evidence so far comes from animal or lab studies. Researchers are continuing to examine the potential benefits of cannabis for treating pain and other conditions such as anxiety and sleep disorders.

Keep reading as we dig deeper into the latest research examining the link between medical cannabis and arthritis pain. We also examine potential side effects and the best ways to take cannabis.

Medical cannabis is any cannabis or cannabis product used to treat a medical condition. Many people use cannabis to treat medical conditions such as chronic pain, anxiety, and sleep disorders. However, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) hasn’t yet approved cannabis to treat any of these conditions.

Many people who take cannabis medically take CBD or other cannabis products that contain little to no THC. While THC does have medical applications, it is also intoxicating and thus is the main ingredient behind the recreational effects of cannabis.

At this time, the only CBD product FDA-approved to treat a particular medical condition is Epidolex. It’s approved to treat two rare forms of epilepsy called Lennox-Gastaut syndrome and Dravet syndrome.

The medications Marinol and Syndrol, which contain a synthetic form of THC called dronabinol, are FDA-approved to treat nausea associated with cancer chemotherapy and weight loss in AIDS patients.

In states where medical cannabis is legal, you can obtain a medicinal cannabis card that allows you to legally buy and possess cannabis with a doctor’s recommendation. For example, in California, doctors may recommend cannabis to treat the following conditions:

There’s no evidence that medical cannabis can cure arthritis, and some cannabis companies claiming to treat arthritis have received warning letters from the FDA and Federal Trade Commission.

Although cannabis can’t cure arthritis, it may help reduce some of the symptoms. According to a 2020 review, there are few high-quality studies showing its effectiveness in humans for joint diseases. Much of the evidence supporting the use of cannabis for easing arthritis pain is anecdotal or comes from animal studies.

The cannabinoid CBD has anti-inflammatory effects that may potentially reduce arthritis pain. The exact mechanism of CBD’s action in the body isn’t clear, but a 2020 study found evidence that CBD reduces the production of rheumatoid arthritis synovial fibroblasts, molecules that contribute to the breakdown of cartilage.

Human research

A 2018 study found that among 1,483 respondents who reported using CBD to treat a medical condition, pain was the most common ailment treated. More than 700 people reported taking CBD to manage pain and slightly less than 700 reported using it to treat arthritis or joint pain.

The researchers found:

  • 35.8 percent of people in the study reported CBD treating their medical condition well by itself
  • 30.4 percent reported it working well in combination with conventional medicine.

However, in a 2021 study, researchers sought to identify the potential benefit of CBD for people with knee or hip osteoarthritis. The researchers found no apparent benefit of taking CBD in 48 people who tried CBD before surgical consultation compared to 152 people who didn’t take CBD.

In another 2021 study, researchers performed a review of all available human studies examining the benefits of medical cannabis for treating noncancer pain. They concluded that with the current level of evidence of its effectiveness, doctors should consider cannabis as a third- or fourth-line therapy, which means several other treatments should be tried first before resorting to cannabis.

More research is needed to fully understand the potential benefits and risks of cannabis for treating arthritis. More research is also needed to learn what dose is optimal.

Cannabis can be ingested, inhaled, or applied topically. Cannabis products are available in a variety of forms such as:

There’s little research examining which forms are most effective for treating pain. In a small 2013 study, researchers compared the effects of smoked cannabis with 3.56 percent THC to 20 milligrams (mg) of dronabinol (synthetic THC) taken orally for decreasing pain. They found both products decreased pain sensitivity compared to a placebo, but the effects of oral dronabinol lasted longer.

When taking cannabis products, it’s best to start low and go slow. The effects of orally ingested cannabis may take several hours before they hit their maximum effect.

According to a 2018 review of studies, you should start with a low dose and adjust as you learn how your body reacts. The best dose is the one where you experience the most pain relief with the fewest adverse effects.

The authors of the review recommend keeping your total intake of THC under 30 mg per day to limit adverse effects. Many states that have legalized cannabis define 10 mg of THC as one serving.

However, some people can feel intoxicated from even 2.5 mg of THC. Everyone’s reaction to cannabis is different and depends on factors like experience, tolerance, genetics, and metabolism.

Side effects of cannabis are dose-dependent, meaning they’re more likely to occur if you use large amounts. They’re also more likely to occur in people who are inexperienced.

Short-term side effects include:

Smoking cannabis is can also lead to many of the same problems as smoking tobacco due to inflammation and irritation in your lungs.

Many commercially available products are mislabeled and have the potential to include ingredients not on the label or ingredients in higher or lower amounts. In 2020, the FDA found that only 30.95 percent of 84 CBD samples tested were properly labeled.

Cannabis laws vary by state. As of May 18, 2021, 36 states and 4 territories have legalized medical cannabis. You can get up-to-date information about the legality of medical cannabis from the National Conference of State Legislatures website.

Many people anecdotally report cannabis helping relieve arthritis pain. Most of the scientific evidence currently comes from animal studies, but a few human studies have found evidence that it could potentially help.

If medical cannabis is legal in your area, you may want to discuss trying it with your doctor. Although not everybody finds cannabis helps them manage their pain, it may still be worth trying if other treatments fail.