About four years ago, Laurie Maxson, then 61, began to find it challenging to complete even the simplest tasks in the morning. “I started experiencing a lot of pain in my hands and feet and difficulty moving my fingers,” says the retired school administrator from Colorado Springs, Colorado. “It was hard throughout the day but worst when I first woke up. I couldn’t even grip a toothbrush or a hairbrush.”
Maxson scheduled an appointment with her doctor, who performed a physical exam and a series of blood tests. Soon, she had a diagnosis. “My numbers indicated that I had a moderate to severe case of rheumatoid arthritis,” she says.
Her years-long journey to finding relief from her symptoms has taken an unanticipated path. Today, a key part of her treatment is the daily ingestion of cannabidiol (CBD) oil. CBD is one of the many compounds in the cannabis plant and it’s non-psychoactive and non-addictive. Also, it won’t get you high. (In fact, CBD sold outside of a dispensary is extracted from hemp, not marijuana.) But, as Maxson has found, it may potentially heighten your quality of life.
Arthritis afflicts tens of millions
More than 50 million American adults have some form of arthritis, according to the Arthritis Foundation. Far from a single disease, there are over 100 different types of arthritis, pretty much all of which cause achy joints and may also lead to chronic pain and a decreased range of motion.
The most common form of arthritis is osteoarthritis, which occurs when the joints gradually lose their cartilage—cushioning—and bone rubs against bone. Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune form of the disease that affects the lining of the joints and causes painful swelling. It can take several tries to find the treatment that’s most effective with different forms of arthritis.
That was the case for Maxson. Under the care of a rheumatologist, she started on a series of medications, beginning with methotrexate, a drug that’s often prescribed for treating inflammatory types of arthritis, such as rheumatoid arthritis. “I couldn’t tolerate it,” Maxson says. “It made me extremely fatigued and very nauseous. We tried different doses over the next year, but it just wasn’t working.”
After trying various other medications, Maxson finally found relief with medication from a class of drugs known as biologics, which work by blocking substances that causes inflammation. “I tried three different dosages,” Maxson says, “and then the fourth one worked.” Once a week Maxson’s husband would give her an injection of the drug in her stomach. “I was too afraid of needles to inject myself,” she says.
When Maxson’s arthritis had been at its worst, it took an hour or two in the morning before she was able to get moving. “I couldn’t make a fist or touch my fingers to my palm,” she says. “And if I got out of bed, I felt like I was walking around with wooden clogs on my feet. Everything was painful and stiff.”
An unexpected side effect wreaks havoc on a treatment plan
The new medication was easing Maxon’s discomfort significantly. “I was feeling way better than I had in over a year,” she says. Then, suddenly, Maxson began having an allergic reaction to the medication. “The injection site was swelling up like a golfball and getting red, itchy and painful,” she says. “The drug was working but I couldn’t tolerate the side effects of the injection.”
Maxson switched to a schedule of monthly infusions at her local hospital. “I get an IV drip for about an hour and a half,” she says. “It’s the same medication but now it’s going directly into my bloodstream instead of being delivered by an injection.”
Once Maxson settled into this routine and got comfortable that she was on the right drug regimen, she decided to set her sights higher. “I was good and certainly better than I had been,” she says. “But I started feeling like I wanted to be even better. And, I felt that outside the care my doctor was providing, I wanted to be participating myself in my own health.”
She changed her diet, cutting way back on sugar, eating more plant-based foods and less red meat, and choosing organic fruits and vegetables at the market. And, scouring websites and blogs where people shared their experiences living with arthritis, Maxson began reading accounts of people with arthritis who had been helped by using CBD in some form. (Here are eight foods to avoid that may trigger arthritis flares.)
What we know about the health benefits of CBD
Emerging research summarized in the 2019 Clinician’s Guide to Cannabidiol and Hemp Oils, published in the Mayo Clinic Proceedings, suggests CBD may be helpful for a wide range of conditions, from anxiety to Alzheimer’s, psoriasis to migraines, opioid addiction, and, yes, arthritis, in part because of an ability to reduce inflammation.
But, as Kevin Boehnke, PhD, a research investigator at the University of Michigan’s Chronic Pain and Fatigue Research Center in Ann Arbor, points out, because of legal restrictions most of the research on the health benefits of CBD has been done on mice and other rodents.
“There’s not a huge amount of scientific data from human studies on CBD and its role in relieving pain and other arthritis symptoms,” he says. “Still, if the findings from mice translate into humans then that might mean that CBD could be a useful tool in reducing inflammation. There’s also some preliminary data in animal studies that show CBD might be effective in aiding sleep, which, in turn, might help reduce pain. People who can’t sleep have more pain and when people have pain they can’t sleep so it becomes an endless feedback loop.”
Maxson was intrigued by the first-person anecdotes she was coming across and during a twice-yearly checkup with her rheumatologist, she brought up the topic of CBD. “He said that he’d heard good things about CBD from some of his patients,” she says, “while other people said it hadn’t really worked. I asked him if taking CBD would be a problem, as long as I continued my monthly infusions, and he said, ‘no, give it a try.'”
Courtesy Laurie MaxsonDiscovering pain relief with CBD
Maxson did more research to find a reliable brand of CBD. She settled on a CBD tincture from a Colorado company, Stratos, that extracts the CBD from hemp plants grown locally and that has a third-party lab test the products to confirm that they’re free of heavy metals, pesticides, residual solvents, and microbes. The company also provides a Certificate of Analysis attesting that each product contains the quantity and potency of CBD that the label says it does. “I was impressed with the level of testing that they did,” Maxson says.
For the past four months, Maxson has been placing a dropper full of the tincture, for a dose of 20 mg CBD, under her tongue, holding it there for 30 seconds and then swallowing. “It tastes good, with a peppermint flavor,” Maxson says, adding that she tried taking the tincture at different times of days and found it most effective in the morning when her pain is the worst. “I use it as part of my morning ritual,” she says. “I get up, brush my teeth, make a cup a coffee and get my CBD oil.”
It took a couple of weeks of daily use before Maxson noticed a difference. “I started feeling like my mobility was coming back a little faster in the morning,” she says.
Today, after several months of her morning CBD dose, Maxson says, “I just feel like everything is working a little bit better and a little bit quicker. It’s like oiling up a machine.” Though she’s had to give up the intense circuit-training workouts she once followed, she’s back to exercising again, taking mat Pilates classes several times a week and walking regularly.
“I realize that I have a chronic disease that affects my autoimmune system,” Maxson says, “and I’m trying to do everything I can to live the best life I can. CBD is a piece of that.” Her rheumatologist approves. “When I saw him last week, he asked how the CBD was working,” she says. “When I told him I was feeling better, he suggested I maintain the infusions, continue working out, and continue taking the CBD oil.”
What arthritis experts say about trying CBD
Maxson’s rheumatologist is far from the only one in the arthritis community to take this stance. Recently, the Arthritis Foundation released guidelines on using CBD for arthritis pain. Boehnke, who helped develop the guidelines says, “We know that many people are using CBD for arthritis symptoms and we wanted to make sure that people could have information to make as informed choices as possible while acknowledging the limitations of the scientific knowledge.” He notes that CBD products have become much more widely available since Congress passed the 2018 Farm Bill, which made it legal to grow industrial hemp. “That opened the floodgates,” he says. “Now consumers across the country can very easily get CBD products.”
Some of the key points offered by the Arthritis Foundation include:
- No serious safety issues have been found when CBD is taken in moderate doses. Still, patients should always talk to their doctor before giving it a try. For one thing, you’ll want to learn about potential interactions CBD might have with medications you are taking.
- CBD is not a substitute for the arthritis medication and treatment plan that your doctor has already prescribed.
- Start low and go slow. Begin with just a few milligrams of CBD and if that’s not effective after a week or so, increase it by another few milligrams. “Everyone’s body is different,” says Boehnke. “Some people may have a good response at a very very low dose.”
- If you’re not finding relief after several weeks, CBD might not be right for you.
For more strategies on getting relief from arthritis symptoms, check out six natural remedies for arthritis relief.