CBD For Migraines: Benefits, Risks And More – Forbes

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Migraines—a recurring type of headache that can cause severe pain and other debilitating symptoms, such as increased sensitivity to light, nausea, vomiting and pain when sneezing or coughing—can make managing daily responsibilities challenging. While there are several known migraine treatments, including medications, injections, supplements and acupuncture, researchers are taking a closer look at cannabidiol (CBD) as an alternative treatment option.
Read on to learn more about CBD use for migraines, its potential benefits, its risks and how it might help.
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Migraines are a type of headache that cause moderate to severe throbbing or pulsing pain, often on one side of the head. Pain may also occur on both sides of the head, in the front or back, in or around the eyes, or behind the cheeks.
Common symptoms of migraines include:
“A migraine is more than a bad headache, and the cause of migraines is complicated and still yet to be fully understood,” says Jessica Cho, M.D., an integrative medicine physician and internist at Wellness at Century City in Los Angeles. Migraines happen when specific nerves in a person’s blood vessels send pain signals to the brain, triggering the release of painful inflammatory substances, adds Dr. Cho.
Migraines are considered a neurological disorder and affect roughly 15% of the population, according to research in the Journal of Headache and Pain[1]. Due to the list of symptoms that render people unable to complete routine activities, Dr. Cho says migraines are the sixth most disabling disease in the world.
Research shows migraines can be genetic, though certain factors and substances can trigger the condition, including:
CBD is one of the most well-known compounds in hemp and cannabis sativa plants. While delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) causes an intoxicatingly psychoactive high, CBD alone does not.
Research links cannabis to headache and migraine relief; one 2021 literature review reports that a combination of CBD and THC had encouraging short- and long-term outcomes for people suffering from migraines[2].
When examining CBD alone, studies show the cannabinoid can be an effective treatment option for chronic pain. One survey conducted by Axon Relief—a company developing products for migraine relief—found CBD may lead to a reduction in migraine days and help decrease the impact of migraines[3]. While further research is needed, the American Migraine Foundation reports that CBD oil may be a viable topical solution for neck and joint pain often associated with migraines.
Beyond pain relief, CBD may help reduce nausea and inflammation often associated with migraines, says Chantel Strachan, M.D., a board-certified internal medicine physician and headache specialist at ColumbiaDoctors and Columbia University Irving Medical Center in New York.
When it comes to CBD and migraines, the benefits look increasingly optimistic. “There is promising scientific research that CBD may be effective in easing migraine symptoms through CBD’s interaction with the body’s endogenous cannabinoid system (ECS)” says Michael Lewis, M.D., president and founder of the Brain Health Education and Research Institute and medical advisor at CV Sciences, Inc., a company researching and developing CBD products.
Cannabinoids, including CBD, interact with the ECS—a neuromodulatory system that plays a role in central nervous system development and the body’s response to both endogenous and environmental threats—through receptors found throughout the body. “Cannabinoid interaction with these receptors causes cells to reduce inflammation, relieve pain or just make us feel good,” says Dr. Lewis. What’s more, clinical evidence shows people with chronic migraines (at least 15 headache days per month) have lower levels of endocannabinoids—neurotransmitters that naturally exist within the body and bind to cannabinoid receptors—which may help explain how CBD may benefit people with migraines.
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While CBD tends to be well-tolerated by most people, it can cause the following side effects:
For people who turn to CBD for migraine relief, Dr. Cho cautions that it may not be a long-term solution—at least not at the same dose. “Some studies show a tolerance issue with decreased efficacy at the same dose over time,” she says. Dr. Strachan adds that taking CBD over the long term may lead to other symptoms, such as mood fluctuations and memory loss.
With those side effects in mind, it’s important to note that while long-term use of conventional migraine treatments is linked to medication overuse headaches in approximately 15% of people with migraines, research has yet to suggest CBD does the same[4].
The 2018 Farm Bill made hemp-derived CBD products containing less than 0.3% THC by dry weight legal. Currently, access to CBD varies depending on the state and their adoption of the Farm Bill. In some states, CBD is easily available to purchase and possess, while others make it less accessible or largely available online.
The World Anti-Doping Agency advises against the use of over-the-counter CBD products for athletes due to manufacturing and regulation risks that could lead to THC contamination.
Over-the-counter CBD products are neither FDA-approved nor under any medical regulatory compliance, meaning there’s no way to 100% guarantee their safety and legality, says Dr. Cho. There’s also concern when it comes to the reliability and accuracy of a product’s dosage and purity listed on its label, she says.
While not required, many CBD products come with a certificate of analysis (COA). This certificate guarantees third-party testing, meaning a third-party laboratory tested the product to ensure accurate potency and that the product is free of harmful contaminants, including pesticides, molds and heavy metals. Some COAs can be viewed by scanning a QR code on a product while others are available online through the specific company’s website. If you can’t find a product’s COA, you may request it by contacting the company before making a purchase.
If you’re considering whether CBD use for migraines is right for you, Dr. Strachan recommends taking several factors into account, including:
CBD can interact with certain medications, such as thyroid medications and blood thinners, so it’s important to consider your current medication use, she says.
If you choose to try CBD, Dr. Lewis says the best time to use it is before the onset of a migraine. “If a person has a known trigger, such as stress, change in weather or sensitivity to a particular food, medication or situation, a good approach would be to try CBD to abort the onset of a migraine before it happens,” he says.
If that’s not possible, Dr. Lewis says CBD—either inhaled, used as a tincture or consumed in edible form—may help after a migraine hits when used alongside other known migraine solutions, such as prescribed medications and resting in a dark, quiet room.
“Using CBD products for any reason is a very personal choice,” he says. “If someone is suffering from migraines and looking for a more nature-provided solution, CBD is a great option.”
“People looking to take CBD for migraines should speak to a doctor who is well-versed in CBD science and research for the most individualized medical care in its application, dosage and legality, as well as quality assurance,” says Dr. Cho.
Doctors can also confirm the pharmaceutical-grade status of a CBD product and monitor you for any interactions, she adds.
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Nicole McDermott has worked in the creative content space for the last decade as a writer, editor and director. Her work has been featured on TIME Healthland, Prevention, Shape, USA Today, HuffPost, Refinery29, Lifehacker, Health, DailyBurn, Openfit and Sleep Number, among others. She loves to lift heavy things, eat healthy foods and treats, stock her makeup bag with clean beauty products and use not-so-toxic cleaning supplies. She's also a big fan of wine, hiking, reality television and crocheting. She lives in Connecticut with her husband, son and dog.