There was a time in Ron Lev’s life when the pain from his rheumatoid arthritis (RA) was so bad that he felt like nothing could help him.
“You just sit still because it’s too painful to stand,” says Lev, 44. “Everything you can imagine doing is painful. Even eating is painful. Driving a car, opening a door, turning the ignition.”
After decades of treating his RA with biologic drugs and steroids, Lev was on the verge of accepting the pain as his “new normal.” However, he’d heard of other people with the condition using cannabinoids (CBD) to alleviate their pain and, four years ago, he decided to give it a try, too.
“At that time, I’d been on steroids for 23 years,” he says. Some of the long-term side effects he’d experienced from the medication included thinned skin, bloating, and weight gain, among others. “I tried unsuccessfully to wean off the steroids, but the pain was so bad… that I just kept using them.”
Within months of starting on cannabinoids, with guidance and direction from his rheumatologist, Lev not only weaned himself off the steroids, he was also able to spread out his biologic infusions from every couple of months to every 6 months. Now, he only gets infusions once a year.
After seeing the tremendous pain relief CBD offered him personally, Lev started his own CBD company, Reclaim Labs, in 2018.
Stories like Lev’s are becoming more and more common among people with RA and other autoimmune disorders. According to a 2019 poll from the Arthritis Foundation, 29 percent of people with arthritis report currently using CBD — mainly in liquid or topical form — while nearly 80 percent were either using CBD, had used it in the past, or were thinking about using it.
There’s also growing scientific evidence, including a study published in September 2020 in the journal Cell Disease & Death, that cannabinoids can alleviate pain from RA and act as an effective anti-inflammatory agent, with few, if any, side effects — unlike anti-inflammatory drugs such as steroids or biologics options.
“We’re seeing more organized and well-done research on the benefits of cannabinoids and CBD when treating RA,” explains Anca Askanase, MD, a rheumatologist and associate professor of medicine and director of rheumatology clinical trials at Columbia University Medical Center in New York City. “As a culture we’ve embraced both medicinal and recreational use of marijuana, and we’re seeing that it does help alleviate pain, especially with RA patients.”
Research on CBD in RA Needed
Positive news aside, Dr. Askanase cautions that more studies doesn’t necessarily mean enough studies.
“We’re going about things backwards — it’s been approved before we have all the research there to support it,” she says. “My biggest concern is that we need to understand and use cannabinoids in a more organized and mindful way as opposed to just saying, ‘It’s legal, it sounds like it works, just take some.’”
One reason for the hesitation on the part of Askanase and her fellow rheumatologists is that while cannabinoids may significantly reduce pain and inflammation, they can also trigger other side effects when smoked. For example, people who have RA can have a greater risk of developing lung and heart issues, which can be exacerbated by smoking marijuana, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Another concern, says Askanase, is the potential addictive nature of the drug. “We’ve learned that most of the things that act on the brain like cannabinoids do have some addictive potential,” she explains. “This is something that needs to be further researched.”
The Truth About CBD Oil and RA
Still, there’s no denying that despite the lack of research, people with RA report that CBD has significantly lessened their pain.
A survey published in November 2019 in the Journal of Psychoactive Drugs found that, of the respondents taking legalized cannabis for pain relief, 80 percent described it as “very or extremely helpful.” Among respondents taking over-the-counter pain medications, 82 percent reported reducing or stopping use of those medications. Among respondents taking opioid analgesics, 88 percent reported reducing or stopping use of those medications.
“I tried for years to stop taking steroids and it’s incredibly difficult to do,” explains Lev. “CBD is the only thing that has helped get me off steroids and relieve my pain.”
Additionally, there’s research that shows cannabis has a powerful anti-inflammatory effect, which can help address the inflammation behind RA. According to a review published in May 2019 by the journal Current Opinion in Rheumatology, researchers have found that “cannabinoids show anti-inflammatory effects by activating cannabinoid type 2 receptors, which decrease cytokine production” (cytokines are proteins known to be involved in inflammation).
The authors concluded that cannabis may be a suitable option for treating RA.
While Askanase is among a growing number of rheumatologists who are interested in seeing more research on CBD in RA, she also cautions that it shouldn’t be used as a stand-alone treatment.
“We need to very clearly make an effort to say that cannabinoids are supplementary interventions but should not replace the traditional disease-modifying therapies we currently have available,” she explains. If you’re considering using CBD as a complementary treatment option, she says, you should seek out medical marijuana dispensaries, which have some medical supervision and control over the products and the amount being used.