There’s still a lot to learn when it comes to the effects of CBD, but early research is promising per Seema Bonney, M.D., founder and director of the Anti-Aging & Longevity Center of Philadelphia.
“Cannabidiol—commonly referred to as CBD—is emerging as a novel, non-addictive way to help with pain, both orally and topically,” says Bonney.
It all begins with the endocannabinoid system or ECS. Discovered in the 90s, the cellular-level communication network is also known as the “master regulatory system” due to its role in maintaining homeostasis.
“The endocannabinoid system is involved in regulating many functions in the body including mood, appetite, pain perception, and metabolism,” she explains. It also plays a role in our sleep.
While our understanding of how this works is “still evolving,” per Bonney, we do know a few basics. The ECS has two main components: cannabinoids and cannabinoid receptors (CB1 and CB2).
Our body produces its own cannabinoids (i.e., endocannabinoids) from certain organs and tissues, but they can also be ingested from key plants. These are known as phytocannabinoids.
The binding process to receptors varies by cannabinoid type, but CBD is not thought to actually attach to receptors. Instead certain phytocannabinoids, like CBD, are thought to interact indirectly to regulate the ECS.
For topical CBD products, this means working with the ECS to help return our bodies to a place of homeostasis, which can be a helpful way of managing pain and inflammation at—or just below—the skin’s surface, per Bonney.
“From animal studies, we know that CBD exerts its analgesic effects through modulation of the endocannabinoid, pain sensing, and inflammatory systems,” Bonney explains.
For example, a study found that hemp-derived CBD cream has been shown to reduce joint swelling and discomfort in a mice rodent model1 (though more research is still needed to validate its effect on humans).
Another perk of a CBD cream is that it allows you to target specific body parts, unlike other CBD forms, such as capsules or tinctures that act systemically. Topicals like CBD cream, lotion, or balm are optimal for targeting the spots that hurt such as back pain, according to holistic physician Sony Sherpa, M.D..
Just note that hemp topical application of CBD won’t penetrate that deeply in the surface, so it won’t have an impact on other whole-body areas like mood, sleep, etc.