I was at a friend's house when I felt an all-too-familiar twinge in my temple. A migraine was coming. Resigned, I told her I needed to go home to take some shitty medicine I knew from experience wouldn't work. History as a guide, I figured I'd spend the next 48 hours alone in a dark room. Instead, she threw me a syringe. "Try this," she said. "If it doesn't work, you can go home. But it's gonna work."
The syringe was filled with a THC-CBD hybrid concentrated RSO, or "Rick Simpson Oil," named for the adorable Canadian man who claims it cured his cancer. I was skeptical, but I didn't have much to lose. I squeezed out a tiny dollop onto my finger and rubbed it on my gums. Half an hour later, my migraine disappeared. I had no nausea, no sensitivity to light or sound, no dizziness, no anxiety. My migraine wasn't muted, it was just gone.
I couldn't believe it.
I got my first migraine nearly 20 years ago, when I was nine years old. I don't remember the details of that day, only the searing pain in my left temple. My vision blurred and every noise felt like an ice pick being plunged directly into my brain. I cried and cried, clutching my head in my hands.
It lasted two days. After that first time, I started getting them regularly, once or twice a month. I was a generally happy, carefree kid. But every time I felt that telltale twinge in my left temple, I wanted to die.
In what feels like a tiny miracle, the oil put an end to all that.
Dr. Michele Ross says she hears stories like mine all the time. A neuroscientist and founder of IMPACT Network, a nonprofit devoted to helping drive clinical research on cannabis and women's health, Ross is a migraine sufferer herself. She uses CBD to treat the pain.
"CBD is really good for inflammation and pain," said Ross. "It's crazy how many things it does."
According to Ross, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD) are just two of more than 100 different cannabinoids that exist within the cannabis plant. These cannabinoids bind to one of two receptors in our brains: the CB1 receptor, and the CB2 receptor. When bound to the CB1 receptor, THC is responsible for that feeling of euphoria you get when you're high. When it binds to the CB2 receptor, it helps with inflammation and pain relief. CBD binds to both of these receptors as well, but it has a weaker signal, and won't get you high. CBD is responsible for much of the pain and anxiety relief that comes with marijuana ingestion, because it binds to about 30 different receptors to help regulate your brain's neurotransmitter system.
Ross says cannabis-derived medications work so well for migraines because they're tackling them from multiple angles. Unlike traditional prescription migraine medicines, which typically work to lessen the blood vessel expansion that causes pain but don't really hit at the underlying causes, CBD and THC treatments help to solve several different migraine-related problems in your body at once.
While research into medical cannabis is woefully underfunded, what little has been done backs up both of our experiences. A study from the University of Colorado published early last year and a study presented at the Congress of the European Academy of Neurology in Amsterdam this summer both found medical marijuana is more effective in treating migraines than traditional medication.
This is significant. Migraines affect the lives of 39 million Americans, or around 12 percent of the population. The vast majority of migraine sufferers are women, and despite decades of research, their cause is still largely a mystery. Some people have triggers, like eating certain foods, drinking alcohol, or engaging in physical activity. And most people who suffer from migraines have a family history of them.
For years, migraines were thought to be a kind of blood vessel disorder, as many migraine patients, like me, experience throbbing pain in their temples. Conventional wisdom thought the pain caused by migraines originated from the constricting and expanding of blood vessels, a major cause of hangover headaches. But recent research suggests, while blood vessel disorders certainly contribute to migraine pain, they are not the root cause. Current theories on migraine pain have moved towards hormonal causes, like an influx of estrogen or serotonin.
According to researchers at Johns Hopkins, one working theory of migraine pain is "excitable" brain cells misfiring and triggering serotonin release, which causes those pesky blood vessels to expand and contract and send waves of pain through the temple. Most traditional migraine medications work to combat blood vessel expansion and block pain signals from the brain, but they don't do this very well. Even the most effective drugs only work less than half the time.
I know this all too well. Since I began getting migraines, I've been prescribed a litany of medications. Imitrex left me dizzy, breathless, and nauseous. Rizatriptan gave me severe anxiety and a burning, metallic sensation in the back of my throat. Some medications made me pass out for hours, some gave me the spins, or a tight feeling in my chest that made me feel like I was having a heart attack. None of them took away the pain entirely. Countless over-the-counter solutions like Aspirin, Tylenol, Advil, Excedrin, and Aleve were similarly ineffective.
"A lot of migraine medications actually end up making migraine symptoms worse," said Ross. "For example, a lot of people experience nausea and vomiting with their migraines, and medications that work to regulate serotonin can exacerbate that. But cannabis is antiemetic, which means it suppresses nausea. Also, a lot of migraines can be triggered or worsened by anxiety, which isn't really addressed by traditional medicine. CBD can help relieve anxiety."
By the time that syringe of THC-CBD landed in my lap a year ago, I'd basically stopped trying to find real relief. I'd accepted the fact that I had a chronic illness that would stay with me for the rest of my life, randomly showing up to ruin vacations or end a night out early.
RSO has worked wonders for me, but it still gets me high, which means I can't take it at work. And because I live in Chicago, I can't legally get a prescription for it. Most states that allow medical marijuana allow it to be prescribed for migraines, but here in Illinois, you have to be pretty much at death's door to get a 'scrip.
As a result, I've begun taking a tincture containing only CBD—legal in all 50 states as long as it's derived from industrial hemp—and have been really encouraged by its capacity to stop both anxiety and pain. Unlike THC, CBD has no psychoactive effects. It doesn't get me high, but I can't say I feel completely sober after four or five drops. It has more of a euphoric feeling. I don't feel impaired, just slightly more emotional and relaxed.
That emotion has been the only noticeable side effect so far. The first day I tried it on its own, a portion of the Chicago Marathon was being run right in front of my apartment. I found myself crying hysterically while watching the colorful mass of humanity trot by. (This was more than a little out of character for me.) For that reason, I've been hesitant to take it regularly.
But given the options—unbearable migraine pain or the occasional sports-related crying jag—the choice is obvious. It's a choice I didn't know I had until recently. But it's one I'm both thankful for and also angry about. What were all those wasted decades of pain for? All along, the solution for me was as easy as CBD.
Follow Caroline Thompson on Twitter.