Cannabis and Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) have a centuries-old relationship, with mentions of cannabis seeds, flowers and leaves in ancient Chinese medical texts (bencao) going back more than 1800 years.  The connection between them may be based on more than tradition: recent research into the science of acupuncture shows its effects on the human body to be, in many ways, surprisingly similar to that of cannabis, with both working to heal and regulate the endocannabinoid system.

With cannabis use legal in over 30 states, those who employ alternative medical practices, such as TCM and acupuncture, are looking at ways to combine them with cannabis extracts like CBD (cannabidiol) to improve health outcomes.

To better serve their clients, many acupuncturists are finding ways to educate them about the benefits of cannabis and how cannabis can complement acupuncture in the treatment of inflammation and chronic pain. Some progressive acupuncturists are now offering specific CBD acupuncture treatments, such as a group in Chicago hosting “Stick It to Stress” events.

At Home Grow Community, we’re encouraged to learn that acupuncture and cannabis share many common effects on the human system, and applaud the scientific work being done to better understand how they can work together to promote health and well-being.

Historical Connection between TCM and Cannabis

According to ancient Chinese literature, cannabis was used to treat 100+ medical issues, including cognitive issues caused by age & pain, digestive problems, hemorrhages, infections, reproductive disorders in women and rheumatism. In the second century CE, Chinese physician Hua Tuo became the first surgeon recorded to use cannabis as a pain killer. Historians believe he used a CBD tincture made with both ground flower and leaf parts combined with wine. He used this tincture, combined with acupuncture, to numb pain before surgery.

In a research paper published in Frontiers of Pharmacology, scientists E. Joseph Brand and Zhongzhen Zhao corroborate this, stating: “Cannabis sativa L. (Cannabaceae) has a long history of utilization as a fiber and seed crop in China, and its achenes (“seeds”) as well as other plant parts have been recorded in Chinese medical texts for nearly 2000 years. While the primary applications of cannabis in Chinese medicine center around the use of the achenes, ancient indications for the female inflorescence, and other plant parts include conditions such as pain and mental illness that are the subject of current research into cannabinoids such as cannabidiol (CBD) and Δ9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).”

Over the ensuing centuries, the authors posit, cannabis use in TCM came to be focused primarily on the use of fiber and seeds: “Our textual analysis suggests that drug biotypes of cannabis were known in ancient Chinese medicine, but it is possible that long-term selection of fiber-rich cultivars caused drug biotypes to fade in terms of their medical importance over time.” 

Scientific Research on Acupuncture and Endocannabinoid System

In 1997 the NIH recognized acupuncture’s positive effect for chronic pain and stroke.  Since that breakthrough, there have been a number of scientific reports supporting claims that acupuncture eases back and neck and joint pain, decreases the frequency of headaches, and ameliorates the negative impact of chemotherapy by reducing nausea and vomiting.

“How Acupuncture Effects the Endocannabinoid System”, posted at the Hello MD website, explains that scientists believe that “…stimulating acupoints activates certain nerves, which in turn send signals to the brain and spinal cord via various nervous pathways in the body. These signals then lead to various physical effects like pain relief and the protection of brain cells.”

The article makes a strong scientific case for the connection between acupuncture and the endocannabinoid system: “A landmark study conducted on rats in Chinese Medicine Journal showed that electroacupuncture could reduce brain injury in strokes caused by lack of oxygen to the brain.  In 2012, the finding that endocannabinoid receptors could play a role in protecting the brain from the same kind of stroke led some scientists to speculate that the endocannabinoid system could be involved in acupuncture’s previously reported benefits.

Further studies in rats have shown that electroacupuncture increases the amount of endocannabinoids AEA and 2-AG in the brain, meaning that electroacupuncture somehow activates endocannabinoid receptors in the central nervous system.

Studies involving acupuncture and pain have found further links with the endocannabinoid system: By inducing arthritis in rats and then performing electroacupuncture at certain acupoints, scientists determined that there was an increase in CB1 and CB2 receptors—the main receptors of the endocannabinoid system.”

The article completes the case, citing a 2010 study with mice: “…found that acupuncture triggered the release of adenosine, a chemical that delivers messages between nerves cells and that also has pain-relieving properties. The researchers found a 24-fold increase in adenosine concentration in the blood of the mice after acupuncture along with an overall reduction in pain in their test subjects.

This study becomes more compelling when we consider the finding that endocannabinoids regulate adenosine concentrations in the brain. Scientists have found that AEA increases adenosine levels in the brains of rats and that this mechanism is overseen by the CB1 receptor. This study, like most studies looking at the relationship between acupuncture and the endocannabinoid system, suggest that acupuncture stimulates or mimics endocannabinoid activity.”

How Acupuncturists Can Integrate Cannabis into Their Practice

Now that cannabis is legal for adult use in Massachusetts, acupuncturists are free to inform clients 21+ of the similar benefits of acupuncture and cannabis and recommend complimentary treatment programs.  With hemp-derived CBD legal throughout the U.S., acupuncturists can use it in their practice either on needles, or through topical or oral application.

Common Conditions for Treatment

With both acupuncture and cannabis having similar, positive effect on the human endocannabinoid system, these conditions may benefit by complimentary treatment programs:

  • Chronic joint pain
  • Sports injuries
  • Head and neck pain
  • Headaches and migraines
  • Digestive problems


Frontiers in Pharmacology: “Cannabis in Chinese Medicine: Are Some Traditional Indications Referenced in Ancient Literature Related to Cannabinoids?”

Hello MD: “How Acupuncture Interacts with the Endocannabinoid System” “Cannabis & Acupuncture–Two-in-One boost for your endocannabinoid system” 

CBD Web: “Medical Hemp, Acupuncture and the Endocannabinoid System”