Cannabis Use for Headache Treatment

Those of us that suffer from chronic headaches know that the search for pain relief can feel like a life or death situation. Over-the-counter pain relievers, most commonly non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, or NSAIDs, may treat the occasional garden-variety headache, but fall short of dampening more severe symptoms. The cause of headache disorders is not fully understood and a wide range of drugs can be used in treatment, many of which can cause severe side effects. Fortunately, the field of pain relief is growing with the recent legalization of cannabis and consequent study of its many uses.

As cannabis becomes legal in increasingly more places, its use for pain management is becoming more accepted. We know that THC is just one of a multitude of cannabinoids in cannabis that can be processed by the human brain—cannabidiol, or CBD, is a component that is increasingly valued for its potential as a natural treatment for a wide variety of ailments. Marijuana legalization has allowed a more thorough investigation of the effects of cannabis as a whole and CBD specifically, and its uses are turning out to be extremely widespread. Pain and anxiety relief are two prominent uses of marijuana that have been major reasons for medical use.

Can cannabis really relieve severe and chronic headaches? Going back to the 20th and even 19th century, researchers have documented evidence of the effectiveness of cannabis in headache relief and prevention. The human endocannabinoid system plays a crucial role in many physiological functions, so it’s no wonder that it affects pain and headache sensitivity. This system is governed by the production and reception of cannabinoids. There are several mechanisms thought to trigger headaches, each of which may be mitigated through use of CBD treatment including systemic, cortex, vasculature, platelets, and brainstem mechanisms.

The human body has two known cannabinoid receptors, possibly more, that exist primarily in the brain and immune system. CB1 and CB2, as they are called, are both activated by endocannabinoids produced within the nervous system and by external activators such as the many cannabinoids found in the cannabis plant.

The systemic headache mechanism relates to a particular genetic anomaly that causes a deficiency of endocannabinoids in the brain and limits the activity of cannabinoid receptors. An influx of external cannabinoids may treat such a condition to prevent chronic headaches, though more research is needed in this area.

The cortex mechanism refers to the onset of a migraine after an episode in which the cortex, the outer tissue of the brain, suffers from a cortical spreading depression, or CSD, which is caused by excessive glutamate signaling. This phenomenon can be suppressed by endocannabinoids or externally produced cannabinoids. By preventing this onset symptom, the migraine itself may be prevented.

The vascular mechanism refers to the overactivation of the trigeminovascular system, which serves as the central sensory nerve tree. One of the primary triggers for such overactivity is nitrous oxide which is demonstrably inhibited by endocannabinoids, and possibly by external cannabinoids as well.

Platelets are the fourth likely headache mechanism. Platelets are cell fragments plentiful in human blood and they have been shown containing lower levels of endocannabinoids in patients with migraines. When they clump together, platelets secrete serotonin which is a suspected cause of migraines. Cannabinoids stabilize platelets and prevent serotonin production, therefore preventing migraine development.

The brainstem is the final mechanism for headaches. Pain signals in the brain stem can be modulated by CBD, inhibiting the conscience acknowledgement of pain, including but not limited to headaches.


Cannabis has been the subject of a lot of skepticism over the years, and not entirely without reason. Tetrahydrocannabinol, one of the primary actors in cannabis, is a psychoactive compound and can cause symptoms that are beneficial but that can also impede normal daily behavior and function. However, CBD has antipsychotic properties and has many possible benefits. Many people are wary of smoking and it’s carcinogenic effects, but there are many new products that offer isolated CBD without the psychoactive components of marijuana and can be used without smoking. Oils, teas, foods, and skin products are all now options for CBD application, and research continues to make these products more reliable and their effects more consistent.

Ongoing research into both the brain and the factors contributing to headaches is needed to determine the implications of cannabis use for headache conditions, but the current evidence is very promising.

SEM Jemsu