Topical vs. Ingested Cannabis: What’s Best for Migraines?

byKait Fowlie5 minutes

It might show up as a flash of light or a blind spot. Or maybe for you it’s numbness in a limb or a word that sounds entirely foreign that gives you the first indication a migraine is coming. Regardless of your onset symptoms, the initial realization that you’re getting a migraine is likely accompanied by a pang of anxiety, followed by scrambling for your meds.

Some will be able to catch the early stages of a migraine in time and manage the pain enough to carry on with their day. For others, there’s no real relief for the attacks. They’re as frustrating as they’re debilitating and misunderstood—which is why so many migraine sufferers have had trouble finding the right pain relief.

Thankfully, new research around cannabis is showing that there’s huge progress being made in this area, and results are promising for migraineurs. But with so many ways to take cannabis nowadays, what’s best if you’re suffering from a migraine? Ingesting marijuana or applying it topically? Let’s look at the pros and cons of both.

The Case for Cannabis for Migraine Relief

A 2017 study found that active ingredients in cannabis can actually treat migraines better than traditional prescription medications—and with fewer side effects. The study looked at 48 patients who suffer from chronic, acute migraines and their symptoms after being treated with a combination of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD) daily for three months.

Researchers found that migraine pain dropped by 55% when patients were given daily doses of 200 mg or more. When compared to commonly used prescriptions like antidepressant amitriptyline and calcium channel blocker verapamil, cannabis proved to be up to 43% more effective.

But before you go clearing space in your medicine cabinet, consider how you’d fit cannabis into your life for migraine treatment and prevention.

Ingesting Cannabis: The Pros & Cons

Perhaps the most common way to get the benefits of cannabis, and what the above study’s findings were based on, is taking it internally. Another study found that smoking or vaping marijuana specifically was the best administration method in providing fast migraine relief. This is due to the fact that inhalation requires only a few minutes to take effect, and it also allows for controlled dosing.

A potential downside of ingesting cannabis, specifically THC, is that it’s accompanied by psychoactive effects—and being in a mentally altered state isn’t always ideal.

Another thing to keep in mind is the aforementioned study’s dosage. A common microdose of THC is between 3–5 mg. Someone else’s “regular” dose, one that gives them psychoactive effects they’re comfortable with, may fall between 10–20 mg. So, we don’t recommend ingesting a 200 mg dose of a high-THC product to the average user—unless you’ve built up your cannabis tolerance.

So, if you’re a migraine sufferer interested in ingesting cannabis daily to prevent migraines, what are your options? You could try pure CBD, which isn’t psychoactive, or choose high-CBD marijuana strains that may not give you a head high, and see if that helps.


Another way to get around this is to ingest marijuana before going to sleep as part of a nighttime ritual. You can start with a combination of CBD and THC at a relatively low amount and see how it affects you, then you can increase your dose as needed.

Be warned though: Effects can sometimes come on immediately. So even if you ingest the cannabis right before bed, you may still feel psychoactive effects before you’re actually asleep. Since everyone’s biochemistry is different ,this could help you fall asleep quicker or it could keep you awake.

But generally, with ingesting cannabis, any effects are likely to wear off in four to six hours or so. If you’ve managed to fall into a deep sleep, this may not be an issue. But on the other hand, it could cause you to wake up when the cannabis wears off.

So, if you tend to have trouble staying asleep, and if lack of sleep tends to be a migraine trigger for you, consider getting your marijuana dose with a homemade edible. The body metabolizes cannabis over a longer period of time, so you may find it allows you to stay asleep longer.

But, if you’re suffering from acute migraine pain, edibles including food or capsules aren’t best as they can take up to an hour or more to kick in.

Cannabis Topicals: The Pros & Cons

Topicals can help provide localized pain relief free of psychoactive effects and can be used before or during a migraine. You can also rely on marijuana topicals daily to melt away mounting tension in the shoulders and neck. Topicals don’t reach the bloodstream so you won’t get high from a cannabis-infused lotion, cream or oil. The exception to this rule is cannabis transdermal patches, which do enter the bloodstream and so can impart psychoactive effects.

If your migraines are caused or worsened by muscle tension or tend to trigger throbbing in specific areas like the eyes, temples or neck, topicals offer a simple, low-commitment form of non-invasive relief.

Our neighbours to the south have many topical options on the market in states where marijuana is legal. But here in Canada, we’re not so lucky when it comes to marijuana topicals. Even after adult-use legalization in October, cannabis topicals will still be illegal.

So, if you’re interested in treating your migraines with topical cannabis, you’ll have to make your own. You can easily mix your favourite cannabis oil with the lotion of your choice to create a DIY cannabis topical. Alternatively, licensed producer MedReleaf sells a non-medicated cream that’s formulated specifically to work with its high-quality cannabis oils.

Why Pick One Cannabis Consumption Method Over the Other?

If you want to prevent or treat migraines, or lessen your dependence on prescription meds, vaping or smoking marijuana is best in terms of effectiveness and speed.

Some cannabis strains that folks have said help them ease migraines and headaches include:

For more gentle relief of migraine pain without any psychoactive effects, or as a supplement to your current medication, cannabis topicals are a noninvasive solution. Topicals can’t be beat in terms of their ease of use.

But don’t forget: If you’re new to cannabis, start low and go slow. The last thing you want is to end up too high and still suffering from a migraine. Like any other form of medication, natural or otherwise, finding your most optimal treatment plan is a personal journey—one definitely worth taking.

Photo credit: Carolina Heza