Pain is nothing personal; it’s something we all experience. From the ache of a tooth to the sting of a bee, it can happen all over our bodies and at any time.
We all feel it, but the way we react to pain is different – some of us ignore it and some of us run to Google to find out why our scalp hurts (hair tumor, clearly). But exactly what is going on when we feel pain and why does cannabis influence it?
Pain, In a Nutshell
Pain is, well, a pain but it exists for a reason: it protects us. Think about a child touching a hot stove. They touch the stove, they feel pain, and they stop touching it. The response helps prevent permanent damage. Pain puts up a stop sign and tells you to quit whatever you’re doing.
The actual process of pain goes a little something like this. Pain begins as the result of an injury, inflammation, or some other trauma, and the pain receptors stimulate. They then release chemicals that carry the “oh crap, that hurts” message. This message is first delivered to the spinal cord and then travels up to the brain. Your brain registers the pain and sends the message back to the area of discomfort (such as the hand that’s slammed into a door). All of this happens immediately – you notice right away that you’re hurt (though other things, like adrenaline, can cause a late reaction).
Pain comes in different types, and not just “oh that’s nothing” to “WTF?” Acute pain, for instance, is pain that is short-lived. It’s usually the result of an injury or incident – breaking your toe or burning your tongue. The injury eventually heals and the pain goes away for good.
The Difference Between Acute and Chronic Pain
Chronic pain can be the result of an injury (retired athletes may have a chronically sore back, for instance), but it’s more often caused by an underlying condition. Arthritis, nerve damage, or fibromyalgia are common causes of chronic pain. Other common causes include multiple sclerosis, headaches, and shingles.
Acute pain doesn’t often change the nervous system, though chronic pain can. It does this by altering the pain process. In the normal body, the central nervous system works to rein in pain. But, in someone suffering from chronic pain, the central nervous system actually becomes more receptive to pain. Even a pat on the back can feel like a slap.
Memory also factors into chronic pain – the brain remembers and recognizes that something stimulates pain (in both acute and chronic pain). But in pain that doesn’t go way, the brain’s memory changes. As a result, the brain interprets it more intensely.
Are Some People More Susceptible to Pain?
Pain is subjective: what hurts one person may barely bother another. But researchers now think there is a reason for this. Not surprisingly, it comes down to our brains.
Per Live Science, a study involving 116 healthy subjects, heat of 120 degrees, and an MRI machine found that brain cortex was tied to a person’s pain sensitivity. When people had thinner cortexes, they were more sensitive. The cortex is also tied to introspection and ability to focus, the latter relates to pain because people who can control their attention are thought to better be able to focus away from the pain.
A person’s brain may also influence whether they heal from an injury with no lingering discomfort or if they develop long-term pain.
Why Cannabis Works for Pain
When people talk about cannabis for pain, they’re really referring to chronic pain – but, sure, you can smoke a joint for a stubbed toe if you want to. So, why does cannabis work for pain?
It works for a few reasons. First of all, cannabinoids (like THC and CBD) appear to block pain by altering the receptivity of the peripheral nerves. Cannabis also encourages the body’s own cannabinoid system to do its job better, resulting in more potent, natural pain control. Cannabis may also help improve quality of sleep, which plays a role in how potently someone feels pain.
Of course, there may also be a bit of a placebo effect – people hear that cannabis works for pain, they believe it will work for their pain, they smoke it and – wah-la – it does. Whether their belief increases marijuana’s pain-relieving abilities is a bit beside the point; if it works, the reason why isn’t that important.
As America is mired in an opioid epidemic, we seek to find alternatives for controlling pain. We have them in other painkillers – the likes of Tylenol and Advil – but even those medications don’t come risk-free. At best, the medicines can leave the lining in one’s stomach to feel as if it is peeling away; at worst, they can cause liver disease, overdose, and other serious medical complications. And so we seek on….
Cannabis doesn’t work for everyone and it isn’t guaranteed to take away pain altogether (or at all, for that matter), but it’s an exciting option, especially for those who want to avoid pharmaceuticals. And now that we know why we feel pain (damn spine and brain), we know that it is inevitable. To be human is to hurt. With Mary Jane, hopefully, we won’t hurt as often.