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Cannabis has a wide variety of therapeutic benefits, but there are times when you might want to receive some of those benefits without the associated high. That’s where cannabis topicals come in.

Cannabis topicals can provide powerful relief for things like muscle soreness, arthritis, bruising and irritated skin. They act at the site of application but don’t go into your bloodstream, so they won’t get you high.

To understand why that’s true, you need to know how cannabis—particularly THC—interacts with the body.

How Non-Topicals Get You High

The cannabis plant produces chemicals that, when activated by heat, become the cannabinoids THC and CBD. Your body produces cannabinoids of its own, called endocannabinoids. The receptors for those endocannabinoids are perfect fits for the chemical makeup of THC and CBD.

THC binds to the CB1 endocannabinoid receptor which, when activated, can alter your mental processing and feeling state. This binding produces the “high” that people experience when they smoke or consume cannabis products.

Anandamide and the Bliss Effect

One of the cannabinoids that your body produces is anandamide, also known as the “bliss molecule.” Anandamide got that nickname—and its formal name, which is Sanskrit for bliss—because it can generate new nerve cells. This makes anandamide a powerful antidepressant and has earned it the reputation of producing a heightened sense of well-being.

THC and anandamide both bind to the CB1 receptors. When you consume cannabis internally—through the lungs or digestive system—THC enters the bloodstream and seeks out your body’s endocannabinoid receptors. The receptors activate as though the THC were your body’s natural anandamide, producing a euphoric effect.

THC in Cannabis Topicals

There’s THC in cannabis topicals, so many people have the misconception that the product might get you high. It doesn’t, purely because the THC molecules in cannabis topicals bypass the bloodstream entirely. Instead, topically applied THC interacts directly with the tissues under the application site.

Powerful Pain Relief

There are endocannabinoid receptors throughout the peripheral nervous system, and they play a powerful role in regulating the pain response. When you apply cannabis topicals, you send THC directly to those receptors. The THC binds to the endocannabinoid receptor and interrupts the pain response, offering the possibility of quick relief.

THC is the strongest pain-relieving agent in cannabis, but it isn’t the only one. CBD, the non-psychoactive counterpart to THC, also has pain-relieving properties, as do naturally occurring cannabis oils known as terpenes.

Terpenes and CBD in Cannabis Topicals

There are many reasons why manufacturers use CBD and terpenes in topicals. First, CBD may not be as strong a pain relief agent as THC, but the two cannabinoids can work together for an effect that’s greater than either one in isolation. It’s known as the Entourage Effect.

Also, CBD has properties that THC doesn’t. THC isn’t an anti-inflammatory, so many manufacturers use THC and CBD in their topicals to reduce inflammation.

The terpene profile of a cannabis topical can also add to or enhance the available benefits. Limonene and alpha-pinene, for example, are terpenes with anti-inflammatory properties that work well in many topicals. Linalool can enhance the pain-relieving effect of a topical and has relaxing properties.

topical cannabis

The Takeaway

You don’t have to take cannabis internally to benefit from its effects. Cannabis topicals can provide significant relief without the high, even if it contains the powerful pain-relieving chemical THC.

The effects of cannabis topicals depend on their ingredients. If you’re looking to treat a particular condition or experience a particular benefit, ask a cannabis expert at your local dispensary.