When most people think of managing pain with hemp or cannabis, THC and CBD are the compounds that come to mind. However, one of the most promising cannabinoids making headlines for pain relief recently is THCA.
THCA interacts with receptors throughout the body’s endocannabinoid system, like THC and CBD. THCA also works on unique inflammatory and mood-regulating pathways. Studies show THCA may be especially effective in fighting inflammation, an underlying cause of many chronic pain conditions and insomnia.
This article examines how THCA works in the body, its effects and benefits that can help manage chronic pain and inflammation, and THCA product types and dosing.
What Is THC-A?
Tetrahydrocannabinolic acid (known as THCA, THC-A, or THCa) is one of the most abundant cannabinoids in young hemp and cannabis plants. Chemically, it is almost identical to THC, except it contains an extra carboxyl group.
The carboxyl group (consisting of a carbon atom double-bonded to an oxygen atom and single-bonded to a hydroxyl group) gives THC-A a different shape than THC, which prevents THCA from activating the neural receptors responsible for marijuana’s trademark high–similar to CBD (cannabidiol). Also, like CBD, THC-A is federally legal when harvested from hemp, which can make it more accessible for some people. Find more about THC-A legality.
Many describe THCA as the “precursor” to THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) because it is the acidic form of THC that exists mainly in freshly harvested hemp and cannabis plants. When THCA is exposed to heat or ultraviolet light, a process known as decarboxylation occurs, leading to the removal of the carboxylic acid group and the conversion to psychoactive THC.
Sunlight exposure and heating cannabis, such as smoking or vaporizing raw cannabis flower and baking edibles, all work to decarboxylate, or decarb THC-A into the famous THC that causes marijuana’s trippy effects.
How Does THC-A Work in the Body?
THCA’s larger, more 3D-shaped molecular structure prevents it from binding to cannabinoid receptors with the same strength as THC (hence the non-psychoactive properties). However, THC-A, like all cannabinoids, communicates with the endocannabinoid system to help maintain homeostasis. Additionally, evidence suggest THCA’s therapeutic mechanisms comes from interactions with non-ECS systems and receptors as well.
- THC-A binds with and suppresses enzymes involved in the cyclooxygenase (COX-1 and COX-2) pathways, helping to stop inflammation at the source.
- THCA has a binding affinity for tumor necrosis factor-alpha (TNF-alpha), an inflammatory cytokine and important protein for resistance to infection and cancers.
- THCA also acts with and possibly enhances interleukin 10, part of the body’s lymphatic system released to treat pain.
- A 2011 in vitro study found that THCA can inhibit prostaglandin production, chemical compounds in the body that cause inflammatory reactions.
THCA Benefits for Chronic Pain and Inflammation
THCA is a unique cannabinoid that shares many therapeutic qualities with THC and CBD. Although still in the early stages, research shows THCA has powerful neuroprotective, anti-inflammatory, and anti-seizure properties, just to name a few.
THCA’s anti-inflammatory powers could benefit people suffering from certain chronic pain conditions and serve as a natural alternative to pain medications, especially opiates. Interestingly, research shows THCA could be even more anti-inflammatory than CBD and THC.
- Studies reveal THCA is essential in combating the inflammation that plays a significant role in various conditions that lead to chronic pain, such as lupus, irritable bowel syndrome, arthritis, fibromyalgia, and Crohn’s disease.
- Doctor reports say patients successfully experienced reduced inflammation and pain relief after a few weeks of daily THCA use, particularly in large joints like the hips, knees, and shoulders.
- One study published in the British Journal of Pharmacology found that THCA was effective in regulating pain perception in rats with arthritis, possibly due to its anti-inflammatory properties.
- A study published in the Cannabis and Cannabinoid Research journal found that a combination of THCA exhibited more potent anti-inflammatory effects than CBD for inflammatory bowel diseases like Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis.
THCA may also have a synergistic effect when combined with other cannabinoids. An observational study published by the American College of Rheumatology reported that THCA and CBDA (acidic CBD precursor) together reduced pain intensity and improved sleep quality in patients with fibromyalgia.
THCA may have a better safety profile than THC, as it does not have psychoactive effects and may not cause side effects such as anxiety or impaired cognitive function. However, further research is needed to fully understand the potential therapeutic benefits and safety of THCA in managing chronic pain.
The body best absorbs THCA’s non-psychoactive health benefits through raw methods of cannabis consumption, such as cannabis juicing or cold-pressed concentrates. Smoking, vaping, and baking will convert most THCA into THC, which could benefit people who prefer the mind and mood-altering experience.
THCA’s recent popularity has resulted in several THCA products entering the market, including:
- THCA tinctures
- THCA oil
- THCA tea
- THCA topicals
- THCA flower & vapes (will convert to THC when smoked)
A significant feature of THCA is its ability to work at low doses. For instance, estimates say more than 95% of THCA converts into THC when smoking cannabis, yet the remaining 5% potentially contributes significant therapeutic value to the full-spectrum cannabis experience.
According to user studies reported by Project CBD, effective THCA doses were 10 to 100 times lower than CBD.
- The study used small THC doses around 0.1-1 mg per kg of the patient’s body weight, compared to 5-25 mg/kg for CBD.
- Doctors said 10-20 mg of THCA daily effectively reduced pain in patients with arthritis and irritable bowel syndrome.
Studies also indicate that combining THCA doses with CBD, CBDA, and THC might amplify their therapeutic effects, especially when fighting pain and inflammation.
- CBD formulas with THCA showed superior activity over CBD alone.
- A higher dose of 2 mg/kg of THCA combined with THC was effective for seizures, pain, and arthritis.
- Anecdotal reports from other sources indicate that a 10:1 CBD-to-THCA ratio (10 parts CBD to 1 part THCA) can be effective for some epileptic children.
The Bottom Line
THCA, the non-psychoactive precursor to THC, displays many therapeutic effects in line with THC and CBD. Various anecdotal reports and preliminary research say THCA could be effective against numerous pain-related disorders and diseases, including chronic pain and inflammation caused by arthritis, fibromyalgia, IBS, and Crohn’s disease. THCA can also alleviate pain-related symptoms like muscle spasms, seizures, and insomnia. As a natural compound found in cannabis and hemp plants, THCA might be an alternative to opiates for pain treatment, especially for those seeking relief without psychoactive effects.