How do CBD Topicals Work?

If you’re an athlete, play sports, exercise, or even if you simply lifted something a little bit too heavy, you’ve probably experienced acute muscle or joint pain–from pulled muscles to twists and strains, these injuries can hurt. 

You’ve got lots of options for pain relief, from pills to patches and more.

Maybe you’ve heard about CBD topicals for pain, but how do they work? Are they really any better than something you can get at the drugstore?

CBD topicals versus other topicals

Although you would use a CBD topical in much the same way that you would use other topical medications, the way that they work is different. That can make a big difference when it comes to how well they work, as well.

How CBD topicals are different:

  • Most topicals work by producing a cooling sensation on the surface of the skin, but CBD topicals are meant to absorb deeper into the tissue and treat the source of pain
  • Other topicals may not work for your specific pain, and they don’t help inflammation. CBD is a proven anti-inflammatory and works using multiple pain pathways
  • Not all CBD topicals are created equally–CBD topicals need to be formulated to penetrate deep into the skin in order to work
  • CBD is safe, legal, and has minimal side effects

A closer look at how other topical pain relievers work, as well as how pain works in general, will help explain how CBD topicals work and how they’re different.

How other topical pain relievers work

Topical pain-relieving creams, lotions, and gels have been around for a while now. Icy-Hot, Aspercream, Salon-pas are examples of over-the-counter topical pain treatments you may have seen.

Most drugstore topicals contain one or more of these ingredients:

  • Counter-irritants such as menthol and camphor
  • Capsaicin, the active ingredient in hot chili peppers
  • Anesthetics like lidocaine

If you’ve ever used topicals with counterirritants, you may know the characteristic burning/cooling tingly sensation that they cause on the skin. 

Guess what? These topicals don’t actually target pain!

In fact, they technically cause pain–or rather, a less painful sensation that distracts from or masks the pain instead of actually resolving it.

Some topical treatments, such as those that use capsaicin or a mild local anesthetic such as lidocaine, do more to relieve pain by targeting pain receptors on nerves in the affected area. 

However, the same processes have the potential to cause damage to nerve endings with repeated use, so some topicals aren’t ideal for long-term use or chronic pain.

CBD targets multiple pain pathways and acts both within the tissue that’s affected as well as via pain signals to and from the brain. In addition, it fights inflammation, often a secondary source of pain.

To understand how CBD works, it helps to take a look at what pain actually is and where it comes from, because different pain needs to be treated in different ways.

There are many kinds of pain

Pain is simply your brain’s way of telling you that something is causing damage to the body. It can be real or perceived, external, such as a paper cut, or internal, such as a stomachache. 

Pain is a diverse and varied thing. Pain can be acute, lasting minutes to days, or chronic pain that goes on for weeks, months, or years. Different types of pain can signal different types of tissue or nerve damage. Not everyone agrees on how to classify pain.

Scientists classify pain in three ways:

  • Nociceptive pain is probably the type most people are familiar with; a toothache, twisted ankle, or arthritic joints can cause nociceptive pain
  • Inflammatory pain is a specific kind of nociceptive pain that also involves the inflammatory immune response, resulting in swelling, redness, and heat
  • Neuropathic pain is a different type of pain that involves damaged or misfiring nerves, such as diabetic neuropathy, herniated discs, or even limb loss.

Inflammation can create more pain

Acute (short-term) inflammation is a good thing–it’s your body’s natural defense and repair mechanism. However, since your brain cares more about your survival than your comfort, inflammation can be a secondary source of pain.

Let’s say you drop a bowling ball on your big toe. Your toe begins to swell up because your immune system acts to make blood vessels more permeable, leaking fluids and immune cells into the affected tissue. 

You’re already in pain because the bowling bowl crushed some cells in your toe and sent pain signals to your brain.

On top of that, the fluid build-up and increased pressure can further stimulate nerve endings, which continue to fire off pain signals to the brain–hence the throbbing pain in your toe continues long after the ball has rolled away.

Many pain relievers are not anti-inflammatories, and the ones that are (NSAIDs, such as ibuprofen) often have unwanted side effects such as blood thinning. 

CBD, however, has been shown to reduce inflammation without side effects.

Pain can become chronic

Pain is an inevitable part of the body’s healing process; but when pain continues after healing is done, that’s considered chronic pain.

It’s a big global problem. Experts estimate up to 20% of adults in the world suffer from chronic pain.

Chronic pain isn’t fully understood. It’s thought that lasting pain can occur when tissue damage affects nerves in the injured area, causing them to continue to send pain signals to the brain even after the tissue is repaired. Other types of chronic pain can appear seemingly out of nowhere. 

Chronic pain is tricky to treat for a number of reasons. Without an identifiable source of pain, treatment can be elusive. And treatments that are effective in the short term–such as opioids–cannot be taken long-term due to the risk of side effects and dangerous addiction.

CBD, however, has proven effective in treating chronic pain.

CBD uses the Endocannabinoid System

CBD, or cannabidiol, is a type of cannabinoid, which are molecules found within the cannabis plant. Cannabis has been used medicinally for thousands of years, but it’s only been in the last few decades that we’ve come to understand the science behind how it works to relieve pain. 

CBD works because of the body’s endocannabinoid system (ECS). This system, which uses CBD and other cannabinoids to mediate pain, also does much, much more. In fact, the ECS has been called “one of the most important physiologic systems involved in establishing and maintaining human health.”

The ECS appears to mediate homeostasis–i.e., making sure that everything in the body is physically and biochemically “just right.” It’s a regulator of regulators, monitoring the conditions of your immune system, appetite and digestive system, mood, sleep, temperature, reproduction, memory, and, most relevant here, pain.

In studying the ECS, researchers have uncovered multiple additional biological pathways for processing pain that were previously unknown. If your body were a map and pain relief was the destination, the ECS represents lots of newly-discovered roads that lead there. Any one of them holds the potential for pain relief. 

And in fact, studies have shown that CBD may have multiple mechanisms of action, providing reduced inflammation, and relief from chronic pain.

CBD topicals are everywhere–but they’re not all the same

The recent popularity of hemp-derived CBD along with its legal status in the United States has led to explosive marketing of CBD-based products. In 2014, $108 million of CBD products were sold in the US; experts are projecting this number to increase to $23 billion by 2023.

In other words, CBD products will be everywhere. If there weren’t already too many products to choose from, just wait!

One reason business is booming? Currently, CBD isn’t regulated by the government. While retailers can have their products independently tested (something you should definitely look for), having no standards or benchmarks for quality or safety make it even easier for anyone to jump in the game.

As consumers, it also begs the question–how do you know you’re getting real, quality CBD? How do you know you’re not getting something else? How do you know that the product contains what it says on the label? What about added ingredients?

Some CBD topicals just don’t work

The studies (and anecdotal history) are clear–CBD holds great potential to help pain. So can you simply extract CBD, put it in a lotion, rub it on and wait for pain relief?

The short answer is no. 

Many topical CBD creams and lotions exist, but unless they are specifically formulated to absorb through the layers of the skin, the CBD they contain will simply sit on the surface of the skin, doing next to nothing.

Most topicals don’t absorb into the deeper layers of the skin because they don’t need to–their action takes place on the surface of the skin, where their active ingredients produce the tingling, cooling effect.

CBD is different. To do its job, it needs to be absorbed into the skin–your skin, muscles, and other tissues are full of receptors for CBD molecules, which initiate a chain of cellular activity that helps to relieve inflammation. 

That’s something that most topicals aren’t formulated to do.

Phytozol is a different CBD topical

Phytozol is CBD topical that’s been scientifically proven to penetrate deeper into the skin and works better for relieving inflammation than other CBD topicals.

The LETS system lets CBD penetrate the skin

The skin can present a particular problem in terms of getting past it–after all, our skin is specifically designed as a barrier to keep most things out! 

Lots of CBD topicals exist, but most aren’t formulated to penetrate the skin. Even if a product claims to have quality, hemp-derived CBD in it, without help the CBD molecules would simply clump together and sit on the surface of the skin, too large to be properly absorbed.

Phytozol is formulated using the Locally Enhanced Transdermal Serum (LETS) technology which allows CBD to absorb into the deeper layers of the skin where it’s most effective. 

LETS uses natural, plant-based polymers to essentially form bubbles around CBD molecules to help transport them through the skin. The polymer encapsulates or forms tiny bubbles around CBD molecules, preventing them from clumping together. These tiny bubbles or microvesicles can absorb much more readily through the epidermis or top layer of skin, through to the dermal layer where CBD molecules can reach their target receptors.

Phytozol has been proven in scientific studies

Unlike most CBD topicals, Phytozol has real science behind it. 

While many topicals make claims about ingredients, Phytozol has scientific studies showing that it works.

One study looked at how well it penetrated the skin as well as how long the effects were retained, compared to other hemp-derived CBD topicals.

Phytozol penetrated deeper into the skin than other CBD topicals, and after 24 hours, more CBD was retained in the tissue as compared to the other products.

In addition, a survey of Phytozol users showed that overall pain improved by 69%.

The bottom line

Utilizing the inflammation-relieving power of the endocannabinoid system with a proven transdermal delivery system makes for a powerful inflammation-relieving topical that you know will actually work.

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