EducationCan medical cannabis reduce the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis?

Can medical cannabis reduce the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis?

10 min read

Sam North

Can medical cannabis reduce the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis?


Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a cripplingly painful autoimmune and inflammatory disease that affects around 1% of the population right here in the UK. The pain and inflammation caused by this condition can cause long-term damage to the joints, with symptomatic bouts or flare-ups that can range from relatively mild to dangerously severe.

Although there are a number of pharmaceutical medications used to treat rheumatoid arthritis on offer, some re associated with significant side effects (especially options like opioids), and not all have proved to be successful in reducing symptoms.

Fortunately, there is emerging scientific evidence to suggest that medical cannabis may provide a natural way to relieve many of the symptoms related to RA. From the more obvious anti-inflammatory effects of cannabis to its potential role in reducing nerve and muscle pain, its ability to ease the anxiety and depression that often goes hand in hand with this condition, and its capability to improve sleep quality – cannabis could very well be the perfect complement to a holistic treatment plan for RA.

In this comprehensive breakdown, we will look at the latest research into the efficacy of medical cannabis for RA, explain what dosage range and administration methods are most often recommended, and try to answer all of the most commonly asked questions related to medicinal cannabis and rheumatoid arthritis.

What is rheumatoid arthritis?

Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disorder characterised by chronic and acute inflammation of the joints. This happens when your body's immune system mistakenly attacks healthy tissue, causing swelling and pain in the affected area. The symptoms of RA can range from relatively mild to severe and may include joint pain, stiffness, swelling in the joints, fatigue, fever, and loss of appetite. Secondary issues, such as loss of sleep, depression, and anxiety can also arise due to the constant pain and inflammation.

Heavy symptomatic bouts can give rise to various complications. These may include carpal tunnel syndrome, inflammation in other parts of the body (such as the lungs, heart, eyes, and even the brain), and an elevated risk of experiencing a heart attack or stroke.

All of this points to just how important it is for RA sufferers to do everything in their power to reduce the severity of their symptoms, which is where medical cannabis enters the picture.

What does research say about cannabis and rheumatoid arthritis?

Cannabis has a long history of administration for treating pain and inflammation across cultures globally, although much of this anecdotal evidence had not been supported by scientific research thanks to the ongoing prohibition. 

Fortunately, the tide is slowly turning, and there are now a number of studies that explore the potential role of medical cannabis in treating not only RA, but a wide scope of medical conditions.

To better understand the role that medical cannabis can play in reducing RA symptoms, we first have to mention the endocannabinoid system (ECS).

The endocannabinoid system (ECS)

The ECS was only discovered in the late 1980s, but is now widely accepted as the key regulator of the body’s homeostasis – that is, its ability to adjust and maintain balance. It does this by interacting with two main types of receptors, the CB1 and CB2 receptors, and the endocannabinoids that are naturally produced within our bodies.

CB1 receptors can be found in brain cells, nervous system cells, and various other organs. The CB2 receptors are most commonly found in the immune and inflammatory systems.

Medical cannabis, and the phytocannabinoids it contains (such as THC and CBD), are known for its ability to interact with both of these receptors and thus modulate the ECS functions. This essentially means that cannabis-derived compounds can be used to support the natural homeostatic functions of our bodies, such as fighting inflammation and managing pain.

THC and CBD are the cannabinoids that come in the largest concentrations in most cannabis cultivars, and the two that the research has focused on most heavily. THC is an intoxicating cannabinoid and is known for its analgesic (pain relief) effects in addition to its anti-inflammatory capabilities.

CBD, on the other hand, is completely non-intoxicating but still holds massive therapeutic potential. It is the cannabinoid of choice for many people with RA, thanks to its ability to reduce inflammation and pain, and to manage other RA-related symptoms such as anxiety and sleep disturbances without the “high” often associated with cannabis.

Now, let’s have a look at the available evidence to support the use of medical cannabis in treating RA.

Exploring the research on medical cannabis for rheumatoid arthritis

It's important to mention that medical cannabis research is still in its very early stages, and there is a distinct lack of double-blind, placebo-controlled trials to provide robust evidence.

That being said, the existing research points to the promising potential for cannabis in treating rheumatoid arthritis. Medical cannabis should never be seen as a replacement to conventional treatments, but rather as a complement to existing therapies.

So, into the currently available research, we go…

A study from Rambam Maimonides Medical Journal in 2020, titled “Cannabis and Cannabinoids in the Treatment of Rheumatic Diseases”, looked into the efficacy of medical cannabis in treating a range of rheumatoidal issues, arthritis included. It found that

“Cannabinoids have shown potential therapeutic effects in rheumatoid arthritis (RA) by attenuating and inhibiting cytokine production in synovial tissue obtained from RA patients.”

Great, but what are cytokines?

Simply put, cytokines are small proteins secreted by cells that act as chemical messengers. An excess of them can be linked to inflammation and pain in the joints.

This study reveals the capability of cannabinoids (THC and CBD) to effectively alleviate joint pain and inflammation caused by RA. Their ability to manipulate cytokine levels plays a significant role in this process.

Next up we have “Transdermal cannabidiol reduces inflammation and pain-related behaviours in a rat model of arthritis”, a study which looked at the topical application of CBD in particular. The results from this study included

“Transdermal administration of CBD has long-lasting therapeutic effects without psychoactive side effects and has potential as an effective treatment for arthritic symptomatology. The data presented suggest that transdermal CBD is a good candidate for developing improved therapies for arthritis”

The last study we will explore today, which is also the most recent one (from 2022) – “Cannabidiol as a treatment for arthritis and joint pain: an exploratory cross-sectional study” – came to more than one interesting conclusion.

The study found associations between CBD administration and improvements in:

  • arthritis symptoms
  • chronic pain
  • overall physical function
  • sleep quality

Complementing existing treatment options with medical cannabis

The research so far has made it clear that medical cannabis can be a very effective means of alleviating the symptoms of RA. This is not to say, however, that conventional treatments should in any way be disregarded or replaced. These include medications such as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), corticosteroids, and disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs).

Making the healthiest choices possible regarding lifestyle, nutrition, and exercise is also paramount. Employing restorative and recuperating techniques such as deep breathing, yoga, and stretching has been shown to be highly effective in reducing the pain and inflammation caused by RA.

Medical cannabis is an excellent addition to any existing treatment plan for RA and can be administered alongside these existing treatments.

The best medical cannabis administration options for rheumatoid arthritis

In this 'brave new world' of medical cannabis, there are countless different administration methods available. What works best for one person may not be the most suitable for another. It is always heavily recommended to seek the advice of a physician or medical cannabis expert before making any decisions regarding the administration of medical cannabis.

When it comes to RA, research points towards the vaporisation of dried cannabis flower, sublingual application of cannabis oil (taking drops under the tongue), and topical application being the optimal routes.

Inhalation and sublingual application both offer rapid onset of effects, making them beneficial for RA-related pain relief. Topicals offer a more targeted approach and can be applied directly to the affected area, as well as providing longer-lasting effects (up to 24 hours).

What are the dosage recommendations?

This is a tricky question to give one concise, clear answer to. There are many factors that need to be considered before determining the optimal dosage such as age, weight, metabolism, biochemistry, and current treatments.

That is why it is strongly recommended that all prospective medical cannabis patients consult a doctor or specialist before starting any form of medical cannabis treatment. Here in the UK, only registered medical cannabis clinics, like Releaf, can legally provide this specialised advice and tailored dosage plans. Set yourself up for the best chance at success by getting the right advice and information from doctors who understand medical cannabis.

Are there any potential side effects?

Yes, just like all other medicines, medical cannabis carries the potential for side effects. Generally speaking, these are minimal and unpleasant, but not serious.

THC administration can cause appetite stimulation (the munchies), dry mouth, impaired concentration and memory, dizziness or lightheadedness, and (in high doses) feelings of paranoia or anxiety.

Since CBD is non-intoxicating, it rarely causes any side effects but can make patients feel nauseous, fatigued, or dizzy. It is important to start low and go slow when determining your optimal dose.

When ingested in the form of edibles, cannabis is processed through the liver and can typically cause slightly stronger effects than other administration methods. Be conscious of this when trying edibles for the first time, as it is easier to take too much or find the effects are not what you expected. This may also cause negative interactions with certain pharmaceuticals, so make sure to consult a doctor first.

Final thoughts

Medical cannabis has been proven to be an effective tool in managing and treating the symptoms of many forms of arthritis, rheumatoid arthritis included. With the right advice and support, it can be a fantastic addition to any regimen that is focused on long-term health and well-being.

If you are considering using medical cannabis for your RA symptoms, make sure to explore all of the options available, from administration methods to dosage recommendations. By communicating with a licensed medical cannabis doctor or specialist, you can make sure that you are taking the steps necessary for managing your RA symptoms in the most effective and safe way possible.

Releaf understands the importance of medical cannabis in treating various medical conditions. With our tailored monthly packages, specialist consultations for medical cannabis, and a unique medical cannabis card for protection, you can access the treatment you need without worrying about the stigma. 

It is important to seek medical advice before starting any new treatments. The patient advisors at Releaf are available to provide expert advice and support. Alternatively, click here to book a consultation with one of our specialist doctors.

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Sam North, a seasoned writer with over five years' experience and expertise in medicinal cannabis, brings clarity to complex concepts, focusing on education and informed use.

Our articles are written by experts and reviewed by medical professionals or compliance specialists. Adhering to stringent sourcing guidelines, we reference peer-reviewed studies and scholarly research. View our editorial policy.

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