Does Cannabis Help with Migraines and Chronic Headaches?
Approximately 5% of all medical admissions to hospitals are due to headaches. Migraines are a recurring, severe type of headache characterized by attacks that last 4-72 hours, and are “the most common neurological cause of disability in the world.”
Migraines affect about 1-2% of the global population, but are much more common in women than men. On average, 1 in 4 women will suffer from this debilitating ailment at some point in their lives. Despite its prevalence and impact on society, migraines remain an “undertreated disease.” 
A study published in July of 2020 looked at the real-time effect of cannabis on headaches and migraines and found that 94% of users experienced relief within a two-hour period. Could cannabis offer a healthier, more natural alternative to current pharmacological interventions?
Migraines Versus Headaches
While migraines may seem like just a bad headache, the wide range of symptoms associated with migraines suggest it is more than a headache and should be considered a “complex neurological disorder.”
While the cause of migraines has not been fully elucidated, recent advancements in migraine research have begun to tease out some of the factors involved. Clinical and pre-clinical data suggest that migraines may be related to the endocannabinoid system, as levels of the endogenous cannabinoid anandamide are much lower in migraine sufferers’ cerebral spinal fluid compared to people without headaches as well as compared to people with non-migraine headaches.
Migraines can be preceded by a variety of symptoms such as euphoria or depression, sensitivity to light and smell, muscle weakness or increased yawning.
Aged cheeses, MSG, weather changes and hormonal fluctuations can all trigger migraines, and the pain is often worsened by movement, light or sound. Chronic migraines can lead to sleep disturbances, nausea, anxiety and depression, all of which can have a significant impact on an individual’s quality of life.
According to the authors, migraines “likely involve complex neuronal and hormonal mechanisms, genetic and epigenetic associations [and] common mental and physical comorbidities.”
While lifestyle shifts like maintaining healthy sleeping patterns and lowering stress may decrease the frequency of migraines, the pain is often so debilitating that acute interventions are necessary.
Acute Interventions for Migraines
The most common pharmacological treatments for migraines are NSAIDs like Ibuprofen, or triptans, which are a class of drug that interact with serotonin receptors and help “quiet down overactive pain nerves.”
Other types of drugs used to treat migraines include opioids, antipsychotics, antiemetics, beta-receptor blockers and tricyclic antidepressants. However, many of these drugs carry the risk of significant side effects, and they can actually make migraines worse.
According to a 2018 review on headache treatments, “all analgesics [for migraines], including triptans, can increase the frequency of attacks and cause drug-induced continuous headaches if they are taken too frequently.”
However, there is evidence that cannabis does not produce this same effect.
A 2019 study on the short- and long-term effects of medical cannabis on headaches and migraines found that inhaled cannabis lowered patients’ headache and migraine pain by about 50% on average, and long-term use did not make the baseline pain worse. The researchers were encouraged by these results “given that medication overuse headaches occur in about 15% of migraine patients taking conventional medications.”
Cannabis for Migraines?
However, cannabis has been used to treat headaches and migraines for “hundreds to thousands of years,” and nearly 36% of medical cannabis users consume cannabis for headaches and migraines.
Additionally, the limited amount of literature that exists on the topic suggests that “cannabis is commonly used and may be effective for treating…chronic headache conditions.”  For example, a 2016 study found that migraine sufferers prescribed medical cannabis reported an average decrease in migraine frequency from 10.4 to 4.6 migraines per month.
The July 2020 migraine study “examines, for the first time, the effectiveness of using dried cannabis flower” on migraine and headache pain severity in real time.
How Did They Conduct the Study?
The researchers had medical cannabis patients suffering from headaches and migraines record their cannabis use, symptom relief and side effects in real-time.
The researchers focused on flower in this study, as it is the most widely used type of cannabis product in the United States.
Before they used cannabis, patients recorded their beginning headache or migraine symptoms on a Visual Analog Scale from 1 to 10. Then after they smoked or vaporized cannabis, they made another report with their ending symptom level.
The participants consumed the cannabis through three different administration methods: joint, bowl or vaporizer.
What Did They Find?
Nearly all participants (94%) with headaches or migraines experienced symptom relief. The most significant symptom relief was associated with cannabis with THC levels of at least 10%. However, THC levels above 10% didn’t offer further symptom relief, which suggests “a plateauing effect.”
Fascinatingly, they found that for headache sufferers, higher levels of CBD led to less symptom relief.
However, migraine suffers experienced the opposite: greater symptom relief with higher levels of CBD. The researchers did not offer a hypothesis as to why they found these results.
For both groups, THC was the cannabinoid “driving symptom relief.”
The researchers also found that individuals using pipes experienced less benefits than individuals smoking joints or using vaporizers. There was no statistical difference between joints and vaporizers.
Why Might Cannabis Help with Migraines?
Due to federal prohibition on cannabis, there is “a general lack of comprehensive understanding [of mechanisms] through which cannabis may affect migraine or other headache-related pain experience.” However, the researchers offer some hypotheses about why cannabis may benefit migraine and headache sufferers.
The “dopamine pathway hypothesis” suggests that some migraine symptoms may be associated with the dopaminergic system, and it is known that “THC increases dopamine synthesis and release, as well as dopaminergic cell firing.”
The researchers also suggest cannabis’ benefit could have to do with THC inhibiting the release of glutamate, which is a neurotransmitter used in “every major excitatory function in the brain.” There is evidence that “glutamatergic activity may also be involved” in headaches and migraines.
They note some limitations to the study, such as the fact that there was no control group, and there was a potential for a placebo effect in participants’ responses. However, they conclude that cannabis “might offer some patients a natural, safer and more effective treatment regimen, compared with the use of some conventional prescription pharmaceuticals.”
Is Cannabis or CBD Right for You?
Are you curious if cannabis or CBD can help you manage migraines or achieve your wellness goals?
Use Jointly, a brand-new cannabis wellness app, to experiment and learn if cannabis and CBD is right for you!
Jointly is a free tool that allows you to track and record your CBD and cannabis consumption, including the dose, time of use, composition of the cannabis product and various other factors that can influence your experience. As you track your cannabis consumption on Jointly, you will learn about the factors that can impact your cannabis experience and how to eliminate side effects. Additionally, Jointly will build a personalized recommendation engine that suggests new routines and better products to help you improve your results over time.
When you use Jointly, you are actually rating how well a product helped you achieve your wellness goals. Over time, your average ratings should go up as you optimize how you consume cannabis and CBD. Use the Monitor Your Progress feature to make sure your results are improving over time.
Download the Jointly app today and start accomplishing your wellness goals with cannabis and CBD!