PAIN COMES in many forms: a broken bone, a strained muscle, watching Ted Cruz attempt to be a human person. Relief from that pain comes in many forms, too.
While the appeal of opiate-based pills sounds great—what with all the constipation and the high likelihood of abuse, addiction, or overdose—a growing number of cannabis topicals are being developed and marketed for conditions as minor as bug bites and skin irritation, to arthritis, nerve, and muscle pain.
So which one works best? How should I know? I'm a weed columnist, not a doctor. Plus I've been lucky enough to live a life remarkably free of chronic pain.
But I work with alt-weekly newspaper staff members, AKA some of the most damaged people you will ever encounter, both physically and emotionally. Although I kindly offered to bring a nine iron to the office and help some of our writers develop chronic pain, I was able to recruit enough volunteers for this study without working on my backswing.
Our four guinea pigs were each supplied with sample sizes of six products from three different vendors. They were instructed to apply the products to the afflicted area as the label directed. The results were... muted.
E., male, age 38—I have back problems from an earlier surgery, but it only bothers me every now and then, usually after strenuous activity. My knees are kind of shot, too, but I didn't have any specific issues with them during this trial period. So I don't know if I was the most qualified for this test, but I'm always down for applying an unguent or two.
M., male, age 41—I've been dealing lately with neck tension, which likely started while working at a sitting, non-ergonomic desk. I moved to standing desk a while back, but my neck is still tight and sore most of the time. Also, I likely have some level of temporomanidibular joint dysfunction (TMJ) going on. I've been to the doc multiple times and had massages and chiropractic work done with minor benefits.
C., female, age 40—I used these unctures for a skin rash, a jammed finger, a compromised shoulder, and a muscle knot on my leg. I'm really keeping it tight.
W., male, age 31—I have chronic pain in my knee from an old college hacky-sack injury (I wish I were joking), and partway through this trial I started developing some hip pain.
EMPOWER TOPICAL PAIN RELIEF
A proprietary blend of essential oils, carrier oils, and a combination of cannabis strains. Our .3-ounce sample contained 43 milligrams of THC and 24 milligrams of CBD.
M: This seems to have a good mix of other essential oils, so it smelled good and offers a minor cooling effect once applied. I used up the second half of the vial hoping for relief, but I mostly just got a nice, smooth, chilling feeling on my neck. I just applied some to a surface pain I have on my pinkie finger, but no immediate results.
C: Used this guy on my aching shoulder and leg. Smells nice. Skin seems dry after use, though. Pain still marked in shoulder. Slightly helped the muscle knot on my leg. Maybe I should just drink this stuff, despite product label admonishments?
E: Rubbed this one on a stiff neck. I said neck. It smelled all minty, like one of those Listerine strips, and it felt glowy and tingly, very nice. I could feel exactly where I'd rubbed it on. But I soon got a headache and felt a little groggy after about two hours.
W: Used this on my left knee and right hip. Not sure if I was feeling stoned, or just sleepy from my allergy meds. The pain was still there, but I didn't mind it as much?
Conclusion: Best smelling! But doesn't do much otherwise.
These balms are made with coconut oil and several other oils, and come in two formats: warming for internal pain issues, and cooling for external skin conditions. Each 3-gram sample contained between 6 and 7 percent THC and around 1 percent CBD.
Warm Blend (Red)
C: I slathered this greasy emollient on a finger I jammed while sportsing and a shoulder I hurt while sleeping. My finger felt bendier after application, more flexible, less swollen. My shoulder still hurt like the dickens.
W: Used on left knee, but didn't notice a big difference in my pain. It felt like I wanted it to work more than it actually worked.
E: Put it on a stiff neck. This one did nothing. It felt nice going on, but did absolutely not a goddamn thing. It smelled pleasant. Floral-like. Which is great if you are really into flower smells, but bad if you are hurting.
M: I used a small amount, and got a slight tingly feeling on the skin. A little similar to Icy Hot, without the vapors. It wasn't too noticeable deeper down, but kind of chilling and pleasant.
Cool Blend (Blue)
W: Used on left knee. This one was for skin irritation, which isn't applicable in my case. No noticeable effect, other than my knee is starting to smell great.
E: I tried this on a few different spots, and again didn't get much of a result. It went on a sore neck, on some tired knees, and on my fingers where there were some hangnails. It didn't do a whole lot. Maybe it works as a lube?
M: Put quite a bit on. I had to rub it in a few times before bed, an hour and a half or so. It was cool, pleasant, and relaxing. I think I have issues with TMJ, so I rubbed it up my neck to where my jaw hinges and will continue doing that to see if it helps.
C: I applied this unguent to a persistent finger rash (it's probably eczema... probably). It smelled nice initially—like eucalyptus and pot butter—but faded to a slight cigarette-finger smell. No discernable healing properties felt.
Conclusion: Neither of these worked, really! The little slide-y container they came in was cool, though.
LUMINOUS BOTANICALS CANNABIS CURE-ALL
With a coconut oil base, they come in three varieties: high THC ("Sky," like "high"... get it?), high CBD ("Earth"), and an equal blend of the two ("Meadow," which apparently is not considered part of Earth?). This product may be applied topically or eaten. Each approximate 1-gram vial contained 25 milligrams of THC, CBD, or a combo of both.
Meadow (Balanced THC/CBD Blend)
E: The Luminous Botanicals line of products worked best for me. I found this one slightly less effective than the CBD-dominant one. I first tried it on a headache by directly rubbing it on my skull. Not sure if that's really its best use, as it didn't do much. It also made me feel kinda stupid. However, rubbing it on some sore shoulders after yardwork provided minor relief, not exactly diffusing the tension in the muscles, but providing a sort of warm-blanket sensation.
C: Finally, the drinkables! Drank it all. Regretted it for hours and hours. Don't drink the whole thing (a quarter vial is the recommended dose). It did, however, "cure" the hell out of a hangover. It also made me very high, and I was certainly feeling no pain.
W: Used on left knee and right hip. Unlike the Earth blend, I got no body buzz from this one, and the pain was still noticeable. I have a theory that these don't work very well because I'm constantly trying to pay attention to my pain.
M: Rubbed this one in quick and easy. It was long-lasting and soothing, relaxing on the surface of the skin, and I could feel it multiple hours later. Not much luck getting deeper relief. There were no "high" or THC effects, even though it contains them. Quite pleasant overall.
Earth (High CBD Blend)
W: Used it on my left knee and right hip again. This stuff got my body buzzing. I still noticed the pain, but it was a pleasant experience otherwise.
M: This one was light and soothing. I put it on before bed, so I only had 90 minutes of awake time. I feel like my neck is a little less stiff since starting, but that could also be because I'm stretching it more because of the applications.
C: Drank it all. Regretted nothing. It completely cured a different hangover, made my jammed finger feel great, and gave me a nice floaty feeling.
E: I rubbed this one on a stiff neck and on a sore lower back. It provided a pleasant numbness that was pretty effective. For topical use, I'd recommend this one out of the six. I was not in severe pain at the time, so I can't speak to its effects for someone seriously injured.
Sky (High THC Blend)
M: Since I wasn't having much luck, I was hoping this one might at least give me some sort of buzz because of its high THC, and because I used more of it than the others. No dice, though. I didn't notice much of anything from this, THC- or CBD-wise. Damn.
W: Used on left knee, right hip. I ingested about a quarter of it. This didn't really make me "stoned," even though it's the higher THC product, but it did help me ignore the worse-than-usual pain I had in my hip. It didn't hold up when I took my dog out for a walk, though.
C: Glad I saved this big bad mamba jamba for last. It was savage strong for this weakling. From a teeny-tiny vial, I drank about 10 doses, taking tiny bird sips. A cure for pain? More like a pain-forgetter. Seems like a very economical way to get high for lightweights like myself.
E: I was getting frustrated with these not doing much to alleviate pain, so I guzzled the whole thing down. That definitely worked. In fact, I pretty much forgot about the concept of pain altogether, along with my laundry, the dinner on the stove, and getting my taxes done. As the results for topical relief for all of these products have been dubious at best, I would recommend ingesting this one if you want to feel anything.
Conclusion: These ones worked the best! Rub 'em in, and they'll do something. Drink 'em, and they'll really do something.
E: Based on these samples and a non-intensive, casual testing environment, I would recommend the Luminous Botanicals line, and suggest that a potential user try the variety that seems to best meets their need... by which I mean, if you want to get stoned, get the Sky. If you don't, get the Earth (that's the one I liked best). Or you could always follow the Road House maxim and tell yourself, "Pain don't hurt."
W: For the most part, this trial was a bust. Even the products that did kinda-sorta work didn't seem like a viable solution to my pain—only a time machine could fix that.
M: I've returned to a few of the above hoping to get some relief for my neck, but I think the issue is too deep and these oils and balms are meant more for issues closer to the skin's surface. I also had a bad stroke of luck during this trial period, and slept on my neck wrong and woke up with a bad kink. I tried some oil and a heating pad to hopefully loosen things up, but neither did much, unfortunately. I think my pain is too deep and set-in for these oils and balms to work.
C: I'd recommend the Luminous Botanicals, especially the high-CBD variety. I also liked how many doses I could eke out of their high-THC product (granted, that was for getting-high purposes, not getting-unpained purposes). I wouldn't bother with the other topicals—they didn't do much of anything besides smell nice.