Is topical cannabis the secret to relieving workout-related aches and pains?

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Photo: Mary's Medicinals

It’s pretty safe to say that we’re in the midst of a marijuana renaissance—including when it comes to holistic health and wellness. The herb du jour is now used in foodie kitchens and tapped as a buzzed-about cure to PMS cramping (in, um, suppository form).

And as laws regulating its medicinal and recreational uses expand, so too does weed’s role in topical pain relief for your “just did Crossfit” muscles. Topical cannabis-infused sprays, creams, and oils are now vying with arnica to become the plant-based pain reliever of choice for athletes and workout junkies. No previous marijuana experience required.

Photo: Apothecanna

“It’s not like an opioid, where you’re just blocking the pain,” explains James Kennedy, founder of Apothecanna, the Colorado-based plant medicine line that infuses cannabis into everything from pain sprays to the brand’s forthcoming natural oils—many of which also include beloved standbys like arnica and peppermint.

None of the products will get you high, Kennedy says, but they do offer serious localized relief if you’ve got, say, a sore ankle.

“[Topicals] are really doing a mixture of several things,” he explains. “They’re signaling some of the inflammation response to tone down. They’re relaxing the area. It’s tough to describe how your ankle is going to feel ‘high,’ but it feels like it’s relaxed, like there’s an enhanced sense of mobility.”

Cannabis accomplishes that by targeting receptors throughout the body that are part of the so-called “endocannabinoid system,” which Kennedy says helps regulate everything from mood and stress response to appetite. Compounds found in the cannabis plant, like THC and cannabidiol (CBD), interact with those receptors to help manage pain and reduce inflammation.

And Apothecanna products won’t land you in the slammer. The line’s CBD-only offerings can be purchased legally throughout the United States, though products with both CBD and THC do need to be purchased through the company’s licensed partners in certain states, in accordance with those states’ laws.

“It’s tough to describe how your ankle is going to feel ‘high,’ but it feels like it’s relaxed, like there’s an enhanced sense of mobility.”

Same goes for Colorado-based Mary’s Medicinals, another topical cannabis scene standout. Everything in its Mary’s Nutritionals line, which contains CBD, is available nationally. (Its THC-containing offerings—which are transdermal, meaning they penetrate the skin deep and have a broader effect in the body—are available only in certain states.)

Photo: Mary's Medicinals
Photo: Mary’s Medicinals

All of which to say, neither brand is going after the stoner crowd (no judgement!). Instead, they’re positioning themselves to make inroads into the wellness scene and fitness studios.

“We’ve done a big push into the sports world, and young, fit people are seeing the benefits of cannabis as an alternative to taking Advil,” says Graham Sorkin, director of business development for Mary’s Medicinals. To get a sense of the types of athletes they’ve got in mind, the company is currently sponsoring ultra-runner Avery Collins while simultaneously focusing on skiers and snowboarders in nearby Aspen who might be looking to soothe ache-y muscles.

Of course, the real hurdle in getting integrative gurus and M.D.s to flock to cannabis is the lack of hard evidence. There haven’t been any solid clinical trials looking at its topical use, nor can we expect them any time soon, given that we’re talking about, well, pot.

But Kennedy points out that topical cannabis has been used medicinally for centuries, across the continents, in everything from poultices for an injured horse to salves that help soothe cramps.

“The actual discovery of the mechanism of how it works really came about in the last 20 years or so,” he says. “So it’s a pretty young science, but it’s very old medicine.” So put that in your pipe and smoke it—or, in this case, apply it.

Not feeling the buzz on cannabis? Then swap in arnica for Advil as your all-natural pain reliever.

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