The relationship between CBD, the placebo effect, and pain

The relationship between CBD, the placebo effect, and pain


Written by Robby Berman on May 4, 2021 — Fact checked by Zia Sherrell, MPH
Share on PinterestA new study looks at the interactions between CBD, pain, and the placebo effect. Marco VDM/Getty Images

  • While proponents say that cannabidiol (CBD) offers many benefits, its most common use is pain management.
  • Scientists have not yet clinically proven the pain-relieving properties of CBD.
  • A new study shows that while CBD can help people deal with pain, this is due, at least in part, to a placebo effect.

People frequently promote CBD as a pain reliever despite the lack of clinical evidence to back up this claim. Researchers at Syracuse University (SU) in New York have recently carried out a study investigating CBD’s value as a pain reliever.

They found that CBD may facilitate pain management due to a combination of its actual pharmacological properties and people’s expectations of pain relief.

The power of the placebo

SU psychology researcher Martin De Vita, the lead author of the study, explains the reason for the study:

“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? 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.’”

The study is a follow-up to earlier research by De Vita, doctoral candidate Dezarie Moskal, and SU Professor Emeritus Psychology Stephen Maisto.

The team’s earlier work found that CBD and its corresponding expectancy effects did not so much reduce experimental pain intensity as make it more bearable. As De Vita explains, they were “changing the channel, making it a little less unpleasant.”

De Vita says of the current study:

“We hypothesized that we would primarily detect expectancy-induced placebo analgesia (pain relief). What we found, though, after measuring several different pain outcomes, is that it’s actually a little bit of both. That is, we found improvements in pain measures caused by the pharmacological effects of CBD and the psychological effects of just expecting that they had gotten CBD. It was pretty remarkable and surprising.”

The findings appear in the journal Experimental and Clinical Psychopharmacology.

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