A new study shows that terpenes, which cause that skunky cannabis smell, might be good for pain relief. The pungent smell and taste of cannabis is caused by aromatic compounds called terpenes (essential oils are also rich in terpenes, which causes their unique scents). Terpenes are distinct from cannabinoid compounds like THC or CBD. Researchers at the University of Arizona Health Sciences studied the pain relieving effect of 4 cannabis terpenes, used individually, and in combination with a synthetic cannabinoid agonist, which stimulates the body’s natural cannabinoid receptors.
This study found that when the terpenes were given along with the synthetic cannabinoid agonist, they amplified its pain relieving effect. Scientists were interested in the hypothesis of an entourage effect, which suggests that terpenes work synergistically with cannabinoids like THC and CBD to boost the pain relieving efficacy of cannabis. Cannabinoids bind to cannabinoid receptors, which stimulate nerve signals, that in turn trigger physiological changes, including dialing down pain sensitivity.
Interestingly, when the terpenes were isolated and given individually, they mimicked the effect of cannabinoids! All four terpenes activated cannabinoid receptors, which usually bind to THC. In fact, other plant compounds have been found to act on cannabinoid receptors, and these compounds are said to be cannabimimetic. “Cannabimimetic [compounds], can… play a role in immune-mediated inflammatory and infectious diseases, neuroinflammatory, neurological, and neurodegenerative diseases, as well as in cancer, and autoimmunity.”**
This recent study adds support to the entourage effect theory. It builds on previous research, which has has shown that terpenes also have anti-inflammatory properties. If you use cannabis for pain, look for “full spectrum” extracts, oils, edibles or vape cartridges because these include terpenes. Sometimes terpenes are removed from extracts to eliminate the skunky aroma/taste. Of course, if you smoke or use a vaporizer, the original bud is naturally full-spectrum.
LaVigne, J.E., et al. (2021) Cannabis sativa terpenes are cannabimimetic and selectively enhance cannabinoid activity. Scientific Reports.