24th May 2023

The History of Cannabinoids
for Pain Relief

by Simon Tordoff


Mankind has sought relief from pain for thousands of years using a variety of methods. These include the use of medicines derived from the Sativa and Indica strains of the Cannabis plant. These contain compounds called cannabinoids, and these have a long and fascinating history for pain management.

Ancient Origins

The cannabinoid compounds have been used as a medicine for over 5,000 years. The earliest recorded use dates back to 2,900 BC, when the ancient Chinese Emperor Shen Nung recognised the potential of the Cannabis plant to provide pain relief. He is considered the father of Chinese Medicine, and he used Cannabis to treat a variety of ailments, including rheumatism, gout, and malaria.

Cannabis has also been used for centuries roots in the Indian subcontinent as part of the traditional Ayurvedic medicine. It was used to treat various conditions, including pain, insomnia, and gastrointestinal disorders.

The ancient Greeks and Romans also utilized Cannabis for its medicinal properties. The Greek physicians Dioscorides and Galen described the plant’s efficacy in treating pain associated with inflammation, and the Roman, Pliny the Elder, noted the use of Cannabis to treat joint pain and gout.

The Middle Ages and Beyond

The use of Cannabis for medicinal purposes continued to spread during the Middle Ages across Europe and the Islamic world. The Persian polymath Al-Razi, wrote about the analgesic properties of Cannabis in the 10th century, and in the 13th century the famous Arab physician Ibn al-Baitar documented its use for treating headaches and migraines.

European herbalists in the 16th and 17th centuries began to recognize Cannabis as a valuable remedy for pain relief. Dr William O’Shaughnessy was an English physician who introduced the therapeutic use of cannabis to the Western world in the 19th century after witnessing its effectiveness in India. He advocated its use for treating a range of conditions, including rheumatism, tetanus, and muscle spasms.

The Modern Era

The cannabinoids have gained renewed attention from the scientific community In the 20th century. The chemical structure of delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) was identified in 1964 and this breakthrough allowed researchers to explore the therapeutic potential of cannabinoids further. It was followed the description of the endocannabinoid system (ECS) that is a complex system at a cellular level that regulates various physiological processes, including pain perception.

With this growing interest in the medical potential of cannabis, researchers were able to isolate and study other cannabinoids, such as cannabidiol (CBD), which has been shown to possess significant analgesic and anti-inflammatory properties without the psychoactive effects associated with THC.

The 21st Century: Medical Cannabis and Beyond

The use of cannabinoids for pain management has continued to evolve in the 21st century. Medical cannabis has gained widespread acceptance in many parts of the world, with numerous states and countries legalizing its use for medical conditions that include chronic pain, multiple sclerosis, and cancer-related pain.

The development of pharmaceutical-grade cannabinoid-based medications, such as Sativex, Epidiolex, and Marinol, has further expanded the potential applications of cannabinoids for pain management.


The history of the cannabinoids for pain relief is a rich and diverse. It spans thousands of years and crosses cultural boundaries. As the understanding of these compounds together with their interaction with the endocannabinoid system continues to grow, the potential for innovative and effective pain management strategies using cannabinoids is more promising than ever.