High-CBD cannabis is the reason I can sleep at night. It’s the reason I can dance, camp, work out, relax and enjoy sex. Because before I found it, I was living my life in chronic pain.
When I fell from a ledge in 2007, I fractured my L1 vertebrae and tore up ligaments and tissues in my neck and shoulders. I knew the recovery process would be trying, but I was 18 at the time and I knew with the right therapy and maintenance I’d bounce back. I didn’t expect I’d still be in pain from the injury almost a decade later.
I don’t think many people grasp how much of a life can be upended by simple pain. Maybe they imagine chronic pain as an annoying twinge that comes and goes, on and off. Maybe they think it’s a term that’s thrown around loosely as an excuse for a prescription for pills or an affliction of lazy people who don’t take care of their bodies. Maybe people think it’s only a legitimate concern for cancer patients and the elderly.
Personally, I never really thought about pain until it wouldn’t leave me. But my pain became an angry fire monster that never slept. It slunk along the muscles of my neck and back, and no matter what I tried it wouldn’t cease to antagonize me. Sometimes it was piercing—an urgent jab that felt like someone stuck a hot blade between my ribs and twisted. Sometimes it was a dull throb similar to a recent bruise. I could mitigate the levels of pain somewhat with things like yoga, massage, acupuncture, but it never left and it always got bad again within a day or two. I spent the first half of my 20s not even remembering what it felt like to be without noticeable, physical pain.
I’d made a complete recovery in the first year and a half following my injury, as far as doctors were concerned. I could do everything—run, swim, jump, you name it. But I guess my body never got the memo that it was healed. Muscles clung to their protective stance all seized up, often hard as rocks. Nerves detected scar tissue and seizing muscles and alerted me, constantly, to a danger that was no longer present.
When I was up and moving around, the pain was easier to ignore, or work through, but activities like camping, intense exercise and even sex made the pain worse. Bedtime was something I came to particularly dread. Every night my generous partner would, at my request, slide the knot of his elbow along my shoulder blades, the pads of his thumbs along my neck and low back, attempting to loosen up the scar tissue and tame the stubborn inflammation. His massages often helped for an hour or so. Then the urgent pain would return and wake me up. I’d shuffle my way into an intricate position where the pain wasn’t quite so urgent. I couldn't cuddle up to my partner or really move at all once I found a good sleeping pose, or the pain would flare back up.
When I really couldn’t stand it, I’d pop a few ibuprofen, and sometimes that would numb things down long enough to sleep. I didn’t want to take it every day, or come to rely on it, because I knew ibuprofen can damage the liver over time. Even when I took pills, the throbbing didn’t disappear completely. I’d read about and studied pharmaceutical painkillers enough at this point in my career as a health journalist to know I didn’t want a stronger prescription. Addiction to opiates is an epidemic in the U.S. and is a leading cause of accidental death, in some states ranking even higher than car accidents. On top of that, I’d used Vicodin during the months directly following my injury and didn’t like the out-of-touch way it made me feel.
Even the weed I was smoking occasionally didn’t help. It made me hyper-aware of the pain rather than the other way around. That was likely because the only thing I’d ever tried was high in THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), the chemical compound, or cannabinoid, in cannabis that gives the “high” effect, and low in CBD (cannabidiol), the cannabinoid responsible for many of the herb’s healing properties.
I didn’t learn about the inflammation-reducing, pain-mitigating powers of high-CBD cannabis until 2013. I was interviewing pot pioneer Steve deAngelo of the Oakland, Calif. medical marijuana facility Harborside Health Center about the U.S. government’s blockade on cannabis research (which has only recently been broken). DeAngelo explained how CBD had, for years, been bred out of cannabis plants because the presence of CBD reduces the presence of THC (and vice versa). In other words, the more you have of one, the less you have of the other. Since THC is the stuff that gets you high, most people cultivating pot were breeding CBD out of the mix for decades.
Researchers were just beginning to rediscover and acknowledge the benefits of CBD, DeAngelo explained. In the years following our interview, public education about CBD’s ability to shrink tumors, save the lives of epileptic children and mitigate pain has spread so far that even Fox News reports on it. (It’s important to note that the healing potentials of CBD still rely on the presence of some THC and other cannabinoids. Part of the reason it is so effective is the complexity of ways the plant’s compounds work synergistically within the body.)
After you live with pain for a certain amount of time, it becomes a part of you that you just start to accept. I believed this chronic pain would be with me forever, and while I was intrigued by what DeAngelo said, at this point I’d tried so many things for my pain that I wasn’t about to get my hopes up about this new potential remedy. Then one night about three months later, a friend who worked in a cannabis testing lab whipped out a high-CBD tincture. Another friend, a cannabis grower, joked, “Isn’t that stuff for cancer patients? What’s the point, it doesn’t get you high!”
I tried the tincture and slept better that night than I could remember ever sleeping. My pain was noticeably lower well into the next day. Intrigued, I decided to get my California State medical cannabis recommendation and try this CBD craze for myself. After visiting a doctor at a cannabis club in downtown Oakland, I drove over to Harborside Health Center and picked up tinctures, edibles and some smokeable CBD, because I wanted to experiment and see what worked best. I’ve been dropping concentrated cannabis oil tinctures behind my tongue twice a day, ever since. Many days my pain is completely gone. Sometimes it returns, but it’s not what I’d classify as chronic anymore. It’s a lesser pain, the monster is tamed and it feels like my muscles are learning to relax.
Studies are starting to confirm that cannabis might be generally better than opiates for pain, but due to the impacts of the global war on drugs, science is still playing catchup in all things cannabis.
Selma Holden is a doctor who works in rural Maine where the opiate addiction epidemic has reached some of its worst levels nationwide. Her patients are lobstermen, lumber workers and construction workers, and many of them suffer severe chronic pain. Because of what she saw happening with opiate pharmaceutical over-prescription, addiction and death, she began looking into cannabis as a medicine. Today, in addition to her family medicine practice, she is a “pot-doc” who recommends cannabis to medical patients in accordance with Maine’s state laws.
“I felt that cannabis was a harm-reduction method, quite frankly, to get people to step off of opiates,” she says. Holden is also a yoga teacher who participated in Harvard's Integrated Wellness special program. She says the way cannabis mitigates pain is almost yogic; instead of turning off the pain receptors in your brain, cannabis medicine allows you to react differently to the pain experience.
“You can be more contemplative about it, you don’t experience the suffering of it so much," she said. "You’re just more in this yogic awareness, or mindful awareness, of noticing the pain, analyzing it, not reacting to the pain instantaneously, but maybe working with it.”
Her description rings true for me, and while I’ve navigated my chronic pain, I’ve been lucky enough to live in areas where cannabis is legal, at least medicinally. Until the federal regulations around cannabis shift, millions of people in the U.S. will remain without an alternative to opiates for pain.