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CBD Oil vs Over-the-Counter Topicals: Which Is Better for Pain Relief After Physical Activity?

Written By Ellese Symons Oct 5th 2023
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Lingering pain can impact nearly every aspect of your overall health and well-being. It can limit your mobility or range of motion, sour your mood, disrupt your sleep, or leave you feeling increasingly stressed or anxious (Multi Care Medical, 2019). For stiffness, inflammation and pain after physical activity, many people reach for the same topical preparations they've relied on for years.  

But these over-the-counter products don't appeal to everyone. If your search for a natural alternative has led you to some of the research delving into CBD's possible benefits for activity-induced discomfort, you've likely wondered which might work better. Although individual results can vary, we can explain how CBD oil and topical pain relief products work and help you understand their possible benefits and potential side effects.   

Mechanisms of Action: Understanding How CBD Works In the Body  

When you swallow a CBD softgel or hold a serving of CBD oil beneath your tongue, the cannabinoids circulating in your bloodstream interact with more than 65 molecular targets, including the receptors of your serotonin, dopamine, GABA, and endocannabinoid systems (Elsaid & Foll, 2020). As the largest regulatory system in the human body, endocannabinoid system (ECS) signaling is involved in nearly every crucial function, from immune system regulation and muscle movement to metabolic function and the perception of pleasure and pain (Mouslech & Valla, 2009). 

Although most of the scientific evidence is based on lab reports, animal studies, and a limited (but increasing) number of clinical trials, most cannabis researchers believe CBD's influence on ECS receptors helps promote essential balance (homeostasis) (Sallaberry & Astern, 2018). Several studies credit the cannabinoids reported benefits for discomfort and inflammation after physical activity to its impact on FAAH (fatty acid amide hydrolase), the metabolic enzyme responsible for the breakdown of the "bliss molecule" anandamide (Devitt-Lee, 2019) and its interaction with the TRPV receptors. 

Exploring How OTC Topical Analgesics Help Alleviate Discomfort 

Over-the-counter topical creams, lotions, and patches work by delivering their active ingredients to the surface of the skin. Some rely on the same medications available in OTC anti-inflammatory pills and capsules. Most contain substances selected to act as a counterirritant to the nerve endings just below the surface of the skin. The exposure to counterirritants desensitizes the nerve endings and decreases pain sensitivity. 

As an example, according to the brand's website, Icy Hot® has a decades-long reputation as the definitive leader in OTC topical analgesics. The active ingredients in the brand's original pain relief balm are menthol (7.6%) and menthyl salicylate (29%). Icy Hot Max® contains 4% lidocaine and 1% menthol. Some products also contain camphor (Icy Hot®, 2023). Lidocaine is a numbing agent. Menthol provides a cooling sensation by stimulating specific receptors (TRPM8) on thermosensitive neurons (Topp et al., 2013). Methyl salicylate is hydrolyzed to salicylic acid (Anderson et al., 2017), and camphor is believed to desensitize heat-sensitive vanilloid receptors (TRPV1) (Xu et al., 2005).     

Comparing Administration Methods and Potential Side Effects  

CBD is the most abundant of the many non-intoxicating cannabinoids in hemp's flowers. Once crops are harvested, the plants are dried, and their cannabinoid-rich oil is extracted. That plant extract is used to make a wide range of products. Based on the results of a 2019 CBDistillery® customer survey of 1,900 CBD users, most report positive results for better sleep, relaxation, mild or temporary anxiety, and pain, stiffness, and inflammation after physical activity. 

There are several reasons to consider using over-the-counter topical pain relief products. According to the brand's website and package instructions, Icy Hot® is made with ingredients selected to provide temporary relief of "minor aches and pains." But with CBD oil and products such as Icy Hot® both backed by reports of significant relief for sore, overworked muscles and aching joints, many people find it easier to decide which popular option might be best suited to their needs, preferences, and lifestyle after comparing the following differences. 

Administration Methods  

You can use a CBD oil tincture to add the cannabinoid to snacks, hot or cold beverages, or your favorite cookie, brownie, or candy recipes. You can also hold a serving of CBD oil beneath your tongue for 45-60  seconds before swallowing or add the oil to a cream or lotion to make a DIY CBD topical. Better yet, consider purchasing a CBD balm, relief stick, or cream enhanced with menthol, wintergreen, cinnamon, or skin-soothing botanicals. For best results, apply liberally to clean, dry skin. You can use CBD topicals on their own as needed, or alongside any other hemp-derived product in your daily routine.   

Other topical pain relief brands offer products in the form of creams, rubs, gels, patches, and sprays intended for topical use only. The blend of ingredients and instructions for use vary by product. Some can be used up to four times daily, others once every 12 hours. The warnings and precautions include instructions to avoid contact with your eyes, mucus membranes, or skin folds, to consult a physician before use if you're prone to aspirin or salicylate allergies, and to avoid exposing application areas to heat or sunlight (Eustice, 2022).   

Safety & Side Effect Considerations  

Hemp-derived CBD oil products are generally well-tolerated and have an impressively low risk of (minor) side effects. In a 2020 report published by the World Health Organization, the agency reported "no evidence of public health-related problems" with daily use (WHO, 2020), and most respondents (93%) in our 2019 customer survey tell us they experienced no adverse effects. But as with anything you swallow or apply to your skin, side effects are possible. Some people report dry mouth, fatigue, nausea, diarrhea, or changes in appetite after ingesting CBD oil (Chesney et al., 2020). CBD topicals can cause irritation for anyone sensitive or allergic to their ingredients. 

If you have a medical condition, consult your healthcare provider before using CBD oil, a CBD topical, or over-the-counter pain relief topicals to avoid medication interactions. 

Choosing the Product Best Suited to Your Needs, Preferences, and Lifestyle  

You know your body better than anyone. If you've been searching for a natural product with the potential to ease pain, stiffness, and inflammation after physical activity, consider adding hemp-derived CBD to your health and wellness routine. The cannabinoids in CBD oil tinctures, gummies, softgels, and drink mixes help support the system regulating nearly every crucial function in your body. CBD topicals offer fast-acting, targeted relief where you need it most. 

When you choose CBDistillery® hemp-derived products, you can shop with confidence. Our crops are naturally farmed, we rely on the cleanest extraction methods in the cannabis industry, and our products are manufactured in an A-rated cGMP registered facility. If you're not quite sure which of our vast assortment of products might be best suited to your needs, preferences, or lifestyle, consider taking our 3-minute CBD Product Quiz or scheduling a personal consultation. Most of our survey respondents report achieving their best results within 7-14 days of consistent use. 


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Chesney E, Oliver D, et al. (2020) Adverse Effects of Cannabidiol: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Randomized Clinical Trials. Neuropsychopharmacol. 45, 1799-806. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41386-020-0667-2 

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Topp R, Brosky J, et al. (2013) The Effect of Either Topical Menthol or a Placebo on Function and Knee Pain Among Patients with Knee OA. 36(2) Geriatr Phys Ther 92-9. https://doi.org/10.1519/JPT.0b013e318268dde1 

Xu H, Blair N, et al. (2005) Camphor Activates and Strongly Desensitizes The Transient Receptor Potential Vanillin Subtype 1 Channel in a Vanilloid-Independent Mechanism. 25(39) J of Neurosci 8924-37. https://doi.org/10.1523/JNEUROSCI.2574-05 

World Health Organization. (2020) Cannabidiol (CBD) Critical Review Report. PDF https://www.who.int/docs/default-source/controlled-substances/whocbdreportmay2018-2.pdf?sfvrsn=f78db177_2