Back Pain: What’s the research say about CBD for Sciatica? [Updated Jan. 2021]

CBD for sciatica
michel moninger

Written by Michel Moninger

Updated January 5, 2021

Dr. Zora DeGrandpre

Medically Reviewed by Dr. Zora DeGrandpre

Do you ever feel a sharp, tingling pain running from your lower back down one leg? If so, you could be among the 40% of people that suffer from sciatica pain1.

While many people deal with this relatively common issue, treatments can be difficult to come by or be ineffective. Sciatic pain can result in decreased movement and a reduced or poor overall quality of life. 

Recently, research has shown CBD to be a potential aid in the treatment of sciatica. What exactly is sciatica? Can CBD oil for sciatica work? How does CBD for sciatica work?

Sciatica is a common condition that causes pain in the lower back and the legs. While the term “sciatica” can be misapplied to a number of conditions, to be classified as sciatica, pain or numbness has to come from compression of the sciatic nerve, most commonly as a result of a herniated disc1

To better understand how sciatica can develop and how we can use CBD for sciatica, we need to learn a little bit about the spine and spinal cord.

The Spine and the Spinal Cord

The spinal cord is a nerve bundle that sits within and protected by the spine2. It serves as the primary pathway of sensory and motor signal transmission to and from the brain. As such, it is a delicate and sensitive tissue.  

Damage to the spinal cord can have far-reaching effects, including pain, paralysis of the muscles, and decreased organ function. The spinal cord is able to heal, slowly. Because of this, many cases of sciatica can be treated and resolved.

One primary cause of sciatica is a herniated disc3. Between each bone in the spinal column, there are cushioned discs that keep proper spacing in the spine and provide support during impact to keep the bones from rubbing up against one another. 

During normal, gentle movements this is not an issue and the spinal disc is able to absorb the shock. However, when excessive force is placed upon any particular spinal disc, it can cause that disc—perhaps best described as a semi-solid get—to compress and displace, usually by bulging out. This is known as a herniation.

There are a number of situations that can result in disc herniation. The spine can essentially perform 3 motions- forward and backward flexion, side to side lateral flexion, and rotational twisting.  When one of these motions is overdone, it stresses the entire spine. Depending on personal medical history, the angle that the activity is performed, and current health, certain spinal portions can be especially vulnerable.

Another potential cause of herniation comes from overexertion. While overextension puts pressure on a segment of the spine in motion, the spine can also only properly carry loads of a certain weight. 

This “breaking point” will vary based on age, strength, and activity level. Posture also plays a major role in performing heavy work activities like lifting heavy loads or pushing and pulling heavy objects. The proper ergonomic alignment will allow for maximal strength with minimal risk of injury. 

We all have heard to “lift with our legs, not with our back.” When we do primarily use our back to lift, the pressure of the load is focused on the spine, which is not designed to bear this kind of burden. This can result in a herniation.

Finally, herniations can be caused by impact or sudden, external forces. While you can actively twist too far and hurt your back, it can be even more damaging when you are twisted by some outside object.  The unexpected impact of a car accident or other similar injury can also lead to a disc herniation. When the body moves quickly and unnaturally, the built-in mechanisms to protect the spine are not able to correct position in time to prevent an injury. 

When the intervertebral disc is herniated out of place, it is no longer able to effectively do its job and support the spine. Because of this, spinal herniations put additional pressure on the spinal cord. This added pressure can result in pain, numbness, and a loss of motor control. 

Depending on the location of the disc herniation, exact symptoms will differ based on the affected nerves. Since the precise nature of sciatica can change depending on the amount of pressure put on the spinal cord and the location, no two people will have the exact same experience with sciatica.

Herniations are recognized as a common cause of sciatic pain but are not the only possible cause4. Other common causes include age-related narrowing of the spine, or less commonly bone spurs or tumors can put pressure on the sciatic nerve. Regardless of the cause, the treatments mostly focus on one key principle—reducing pain and inflammation. 

Considering that cannabidiol presents an extremely safe profile and is currently being used clinically, these results suggest that this compound could be useful in the treatment of intervertebral disc degeneration.

How can CBD help?

CBD oil for sciatica has only been considered relatively recently. Currently, the FDA only recognizes CBD as a treatment for some forms of epilepsy in a specific prescription medication. However, studies are showing that CBD just might be a helpful asset in treating sciatica.  

Keep in mind, this article is only intended to serve as information and does not provide medical advice. Talk to your doctor before starting any new treatment for sciatica.

In order to really understand just how CBD for sciatic pain can help, we need to think about the underlying issues in sciatica and the overall influence of CBD on the body. As shown above, sciatica is caused by pressure and inflammation around the sciatic nerve. 

Because of this, the focus of treatment is going to be reducing pressure and inflammation. It isn’t always that simple, though. Because of the delicate nature of the nervous system, even slight stressors can aggravate the nerve. 

When the sciatic nerve is irritated, it can cause pain, soreness, numbness, and motor problems associated with sciatica. Along with this, there is usually some amount of inflammation in the affected area. 

Sciatica belongs to a group of conditions known as radiculopathies5. This means that the root cause of the issue is located around the nerve root, but the symptoms can be found along the path that the nerve follows. This is why many who suffer from sciatica deal with distant pains in the buttocks, legs, knees, and feet.

One of the key tenets of the treatment of mild to moderate sciatica is reducing inflammation. This can be done in a number of ways. Many people know the acronym R.I.C.E.: Rest, ice, compression, and elevation. All of these work together to bring swelling and pain down in the body. 

It can be tempting to apply treatments to the area where you feel pain. Icing your leg when dealing with sciatica may feel like it will help, but for true relief, you will need to ice your lower back, where the nerve is compressed.

With the objective of reducing inflammation in one specific area, it is not surprising that researchers are looking to CBD for sciatica treatments. CBD is a cannabinoid that provides an overall anti-inflammatory and sedating effect. 

Within the body, the endocannabinoid system or ECS functions in the nervous system, the immune system and in other systems to help keep the body in balance6, 7. While there are a number of cannabinoids that can influence the body in a number of different ways, CBD has been studied more carefully due to its popularity and the therapeutic nature of some of the known effects8, 9.

Of course, CBD is not a magical cure-all for every disease under the sun. However, the evidence does suggest that sciatica may be one of the many ailments that CBD can genuinely help treat. For example, a study published in 2014 in the prestigious journal PLoS One, concluded that “Considering that cannabidiol presents an extremely safe profile and is currently being used clinically, these results suggest that this compound could be useful in the treatment of intervertebral disc degeneration10.”

Because of the relatively recent interest in CBD for the treatment of pain and inflammation, further study must be done to prove effectiveness. 

Still, there are enough studies in animals and a growing number of studies in humans to imply that CBD may be effective in the treatment of pain associated with sciatica and warrant further investigation. One such study involved rats.  In one animal study, mice with sciatic nerve damage were provided free access to CBD at their discretion. Over the course of 3 weeks, the mice demonstrated decreased signs of pain, pointing to CBD as a possibly valuable treatment option11.

Another study –this one in humans—was conducted and showed that CBD may be effective for the treatment of sciatica. This study was done with patients who dealt with a number of conditions, including spinal injuries, neurological dysfunctions, and more12

This study provided pain sufferers with CBD as a treatment option. After 2 weeks, those who were given CBD over the placebo demonstrated pain relief “significantly superior to placebo12.”

While this was a rather small preliminary study, it does indicate that there is merit to the research that is being done and that further studies are required for us to better understand the true impact of CBD.

The more generalized studies looking at the use of CBD to address pain have also had positive results, though all maintain that more research needs to be done13, 14. You should also know that not all the research is done using CBD—often, CBD is used in combination with THC for pain research.  That is important because depending on the laws where you live, you may or may not be able to use THC legally.

Just as each person will have a different experiencing sciatic pain, each person will have a different experience using CBD oil or another form of skin application (like a balm or a lotion) for sciatica. 

As with any other supplement, talk to your doctor before using CBD for sciatica. If at any point you have any uncomfortable side-effects while using CBD oil for sciatica, stop and talk to a medical professional. 

Reading this article and the studies implying the benefit of CBD for sciatic pain, you may be wondering where to start looking. There are a few specific things to consider before buying just any product with CBD for sciatica.

How to choose a CBD product

There are countless companies selling CBD in oils, creams, balms, sprays, gummies, vaporizers, edibles, and more. How are you supposed to know which one is the right one for you? The first step is identifying what exactly you are going to be using CBD for. 

When dealing with localized pain, like sciatica, it may be most effective to use a localized treatment. While ingestible CBD products do provide an overall calming and healing effect, the strength of the treatment will be dispersed throughout the entire body. Therefore, when trying to treat a condition that comes from one specific place, like sciatica, a localized treatment will likely be most effective. Balms, sprays, creams, and oils all work well at providing the healing power of CBD to the area that needs it most. 

Remember, even though you may feel pain or numbness down your leg, the root cause will be at the base of the nerve in the lower back.

Once you have identified the exact application of CBD you want, you will need to find a brand. Many brands are popping up on the market offering good deals and attractive offers. 

How can you tell if a CBD product really is legitimate? A good CBD producer will provide third party testing of their products. Since the FDA only recognizes CBD as a supplement, not a medication, there are minimal guidelines. Shady or ill-informed companies may provide you with a product that is not potent enough to achieve the results you want.

Other products may contain THC. THC is another cannabinoid that is derived from cannabis. THC is most widely known for causing the sensation of being “high.” Importantly, THC may not be legal to use where you live.

If your goal is simply to gain the therapeutic benefits of CBD without the psychoactive effects of THC, you will want to check the third-party testing to make sure the only cannabinoids in the product are the ones you want.

Finally, you will need to verify other ingredients within the product you are considering purchasing. All products will contain other ingredients to make for an easier and safer application of CBD through the skin. 

Many also contain other active ingredients intended to achieve greater results. Do your own research and really know what you are using. 

Before you start taking CBD for sciatica or any other supplement, talk to your doctor. You may be surprised at how medications and other supplements can impact the effects of CBD—and vice versa! Share with a medical professional what supplements you may be currently taking to see if there is any risk of mixing it with CBD.

Ultimately, CBD for sciatica may be a possibly effective solution for those suffering from sciatic pain. While research must continue to prove for a certainty that CBD is a safe treatment and for the FDA to authorize its use as a medication, a growing number of studies show that CBD has some effect on sciatic pain. 

Using a third-party tested topical CBD product, you too may find that your sciatica is more easily managed.

Disclaimer

This article is in no way intended to serve as medical advice or replace the recommendations of your doctor. Talk to your doctor before pursuing any supplements or treatments. CBD and other cannabinoids are classified as food/dietary supplements, NOT as FDA-approved medications. We therefore cannot make any medical claims or give any medical advice concerning the healing powers of cannabis. This article is here to share the available literature on the subject. We can (and do) encourage you to research and try cannabis-based products as you see fit.

References

1Davis D, Vasudevan A. Sciatica. [Updated 2019 Feb 28]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2019 Jan-. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK507908/

2Adigun, O. O., Reddy, V., & Varacallo, M. (2020). Anatomy, Back, Spinal Cord. In StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK537004/

3Ropper AH, Zafonte RD. Sciatica. N Engl J Med. 2015 Mar 26;372(13):1240-8. doi: 10.1056/NEJMra1410151. PMID: 25806916. https://www.nejm.org/doi/10.1056/NEJMra1410151?url_ver=Z39.88-2003&rfr_id=ori:rid:crossref.org&rfr_dat=cr_pub%20%200pubmed

4Sciatica. (2020, August 01). Retrieved January 05, 2021, from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/sciatica/symptoms-causes/syc-20377435

5Jason C. Eck, D. (2020, December 31). Cervical Radiculopathy: Symptoms, Treatments, Test & Types. Retrieved January 05, 2021, from https://www.medicinenet.com/radiculopathy/article.htm

6Lu, H.-C., & Mackie, K. (2015, Oct 30). An introduction to the endogenous cannabinoid system. Biological Psychiatry, 79(7), 516-525. https://www.biologicalpsychiatryjournal.com/article/S0006-3223(15)00869-0/fulltext

7Di Marzo V, Piscitelli F. The Endocannabinoid System and its Modulation by Phytocannabinoids. Neurotherapeutics. 2015 Oct;12(4):692-8. doi: 10.1007/s13311-015-0374-6. PMID: 26271952; PMCID: PMC4604172. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4604172/

8Crippa JA, Guimarães FS, Campos AC, Zuardi AW. Translational Investigation of the Therapeutic Potential of Cannabidiol (CBD): Toward a New Age. Front Immunol. 2018 Sep 21;9:2009. doi: 10.3389/fimmu.2018.02009. PMID: 30298064; PMCID: PMC6161644. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6161644/

9Grinspoon, P. (2020, Apr 15). Cannabidiol (CBD) — what we know and what we don’t. Harvard Health Publishing. Retrieved Nov 6, 2020. https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/cannabidiol-cbd-what-we-know-and-what-we-dont-2018082414476

10Silveira JW, Issy AC, Castania VA, et al. Protective effects of cannabidiol on lesion-induced intervertebral disc degeneration. PLoS One. 2014;9(12):e113161. Published 2014 Dec 17. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0113161 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4269422/

11Abraham, A.D., Leung, E.J.Y., Wong, B.A. et al. Orally consumed cannabinoids provide long-lasting relief of allodynia in a mouse model of chronic neuropathic pain. Neuropsychopharmacol. 45, 1105–1114 (2020). https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31812152/

12Wade, D. T., Robson, P., House, H., Makela, P., & Aram, J. (2003). A preliminary controlled study to determine whether whole-plant cannabis extracts can improve intractable neurogenic symptoms. Clinical Rehabilitation, 17(1), 21–29. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1191/0269215503cr581oa

13Mücke M, Phillips T, Radbruch L, Petzke F, Häuser W. Cannabis-based medicines for chronic neuropathic pain in adults. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2018 Mar 7;3(3):CD012182. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD012182.pub2. PMID: 29513392; PMCID: PMC6494210. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29513392/ 

14Hoggart B, Ratcliffe S, Ehler E, Simpson KH, Hovorka J, Lejčko J, Taylor L, Lauder H, Serpell M. A multicentre, open-label, follow-on study to assess the long-term maintenance of effect, tolerance and safety of THC/CBD oromucosal spray in the management of neuropathic pain. J Neurol. 2015 Jan;262(1):27-40. doi: 10.1007/s00415-014-7502-9. Epub 2014 Sep 30. PMID: 25270679. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25270679/

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