Story at a glance

  • CBD is a compound found in cannabis plants.
  • CBD oils are being used to help relieve pain.
  • One group of researchers investigated whether that works because of CBD or psychological expectations.

Pain is not an on-and-off switch where you either feel it or you don’t. It’s a complex phenomenon with many factors that can affect the pain outcome, and in recent years many people have turned to cannabidiol (CBD) products to manage or ease their pain. A group of researchers were interested in seeing how CBD can affect pain outcomes both physically and psychologically.

In a study published in Experimental and Clinical Psychopharmacology, a team conducted a drug and placebo study using pure CBD isolate oil. The aims for the study were to try to parse out differences between the pharmacological effects of the active ingredients and the psychological effects of expecting something to work. The participants were split into four groups: “control (told inactive—given inactive); expectancy (told active CBD—given inactive); drug (told inactive—given active CBD); and expectancy + drug (told active CBD—given active CBD),” according to the paper.

“For science and the public at large the question remained, is the pain relief that CBD users claim to experience due to pharmacological effects or placebo effects,” said Martin De Vita, a researcher in the psychology department at Syracuse University's College of Arts and Sciences and first author on the paper, in a press release. “That's a fair question because we know that simply telling someone that a substance has the ability to relieve their pain can actually cause robust changes in their pain sensitivity. These are called expectancy effects.”


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The researchers found that pain unpleasantness was significantly reduced in the drug, expectancy and expectancy + drug groups when compared to the control group.

“We hypothesized that we would primarily detect expectancy-induced placebo analgesia (pain relief),” says De Vita. “What we found though after measuring several different pain outcomes is that it's actually a little bit of both.”

They found improvements in pain outcomes due to the pharmacological effects of CBD, as well as the psychological effects of expecting to receive CBD treatment.

These results are a sign that CBD is working in multiple ways.

“The data is exciting but pretty complex in that different pain measures responded differently to the drug effect, to the expectancy, or both the drug and expectancy combined--so we're still trying to figure out what is behind the differential data with different kinds of pain measures,” said Syracuse Emeritus Psychology Professor Stephen Maisto, who was involved in the study, in the press release.

Future studies could delve deeper into how CBD is causing certain reactions to a pain stimulus and what the underlying mechanisms are for why it is reducing pain unpleasantness.

De Vita said in the press release, “It's not just pain, yes or no, but there are these other dimensions of pain, and it would be interesting to see which ones are being targeted.”


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Published on Apr 28, 2021