Topical Cannabis Gel Relieves Arthritis Pain

Nearly 50 million American adults suffer from severe joint inflammation, known as arthritis, a number expected to reach 67 million by 2030. A study published by the European Journal of Pain suggests that transdermal cannabidiol (CBD) gel could be an effective alternative treatment. The research, conducted on arthritic rats, found that CBD gel significantly reduced joint swelling, pain, immune cell infiltration, and synovial membrane thickening in a dose-dependent manner. The study concludes that the use of topical CBD has long-lasting therapeutic effects without psychoactive side effects, making it a promising candidate for improved arthritis therapies.
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According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 50 million American adults suffer from severe joint inflammation, known as arthritis. By 2030, that number is expected to reach 67 million. Current treatment for rheumatoid arthritis focuses on injectable fusion-proteins which inhibit an important pro-inflammatory substance called TNF. While effective, this treatment may lead to immune suppression (which researchers worry could increase risk for infections).

A new study published by the European Journal of Pain suggests an alternative treatment may produce better results: transdermal cannabidiol (or topical cannabis gel).


Multiple studies have identified cannabinoids and cannabinoid receptors as potential targets for reducing arthritis pain and inflammation. Cannabinoids (such THC and CBD) are naturally occurring compounds in the Cannabis sativa, or marijuana, plant that bear near identical similarities to chemical compounds produced by our body called endocannabinoids. The human body also features a number of cannabinoid receptors (categorized as CB1 and CB2) that interact with both types of compounds.

Cannabinoids work in different ways. For instance, THC (the psychoactive compound in cannabis) binds directly with CB1 and CB2 receptors, while CBD’s exact mechanism of action is unknown.

According to researchers, oral bioavailability of CBD is “very limited.”  In an effort to side-step this problem, and avoid the first pass metabolism encountered by orally administered drugs, scientists from the University of Kentucky decided to create a CBD-based gel and measure its efficacy in reducing arthritis pain and inflammation.

Cannabis (CBD) gel study results

Researchers administered CBD gel in four different doses (0.62, 3.1, 6.2 and 62.3 mg/day) to arthritic rats over a period of four days. Results revealed CBD gel “significantly” reduced joint swelling, limb posture scores as a rating of spontaneous pain, immune cell infiltration, and thickening of the synovial membrane in a dose-dependent manner. As expected, transdermal application provided “good blood absorption”, increasing effectiveness.

As the authors explain:

These studies demonstrate transdermal administration of CBD has long-lasting therapeutic effects without psychoactive side-effects. Thus, use of topical CBD has potential as effective treatment of arthritic symptomatology. At present, one in five (21%) adults worldwide are diagnosed with some form of arthritis by their physicians. The data presented suggest transdermal CBD is a good candidate for developing improved therapies for this debilitating disease.

Updated: May 28, 2024

Article Written By:

Jessica Walters

Jessica Walters serves as CannaMD's Chief Medical Researcher. Prior to her time at CannaMD, Jessica earned her degree from Harvard where she focused on neuropsychology. Her personal research interests include psychosocial interventions for obesity, depression, and generalized anxiety disorders.


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