The Endocannabinoid System’s Role in the Pain Response

We’ve regularly discussed the body’s endocannabinoid system and its responsibility in regulating an array of physiological processes to encourage homeostasis. One of the processes the endocannabinoid system is tasked with managing is the presence and intensity of pain.

Often felt like a sting, ache, tingle, prick, or burn, pain is classified as either acute or chronic. Acute pain is the discomfort that comes on suddenly following an injury or trauma or damage to tissue caused by a disease. Chronic pain is the discomfort that accommodates chronic diseases.

The Endocannabinoid System’s Role in the Pain Response

The endocannabinoid system is a signaling network made up of cannabinoid receptors (CB1 and CB2) and endogenous ligands called cannabinoids. The system is responsible for balancing many processes, including controlling the stimulation of nerve cells to increase or decrease pain.

Cannabinoids, synthesized in the body on demand, act upon the cannabinoid receptors found throughout the central and peripheral nervous systems to either stimulate or inhibit pain signals.

When the endocannabinoid system is functioning properly, this neuroregulatory process stimulates the nerve cells to increase pain only when there’s an injury or other problem that needs attention. The unpleasant sensory experience of pain is designed to be a warning system that something in the body is wrong. Once the injured or damaged tissue is healed, cannabinoids are again generated to interact with the cannabinoid receptors to elicit pathophysiological processes that reduce the sensation of pain. The activation of both CB1 and CB2 receptors has shown to reduce the processing of pain signaling in acute and chronic pain conditions.

Researchers believe, however, that in some cases a dysfunction with the endocannabinoid system causes pain signals to be active in the nervous system even in the absence of any evidence of damage. A condition called clinical endocannabinoid deficiency is thought to be the underlying cause of several subjective pain syndromes. Scientists believe that in some cases, the body doesn’t generate enough cannabinoids for the endocannabinoid system to be able to work efficiently. This, in turn, prevents it from effectively regulating inflammation and pain.

In cases where the body doesn’t synthesize enough cannabinoids, supplementing with plant-based cannabinoids, such as cannabidiol (CBD), may help address the deficiency and in turn improve the endocannabinoid system’s ability to function. Countless studies have found the administration of plant-based cannabinoids to reduce the intensity of pain, suggesting that the compounds can help the endocannabinoid system function properly.

Studies also indicate that CBD could be a safer way to manage pain compared to commonly prescribed, but highly addictive, opioid medications.


You can learn more about cannabinoids like CBD and what research has so far discovered about their therapeutic effects by visiting our education page.

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