How Much Pain Relief Is Real, How Much Is Placebo?

By Denise Mann

HealthDay reporter

THURSDAY April 29, 2021 (HealthDay News) – CBD is all the rage and millions of people are turning to it for a multitude of reasons, including pain relief.

But despite the popularity and widespread use of CBD, new research shows that its real benefits are less clear.

The bottom line? CBD – and your expectations for it to help (the “placebo effect”) – may make the pain less bothersome, but it doesn’t seem to reduce the intensity of the pain.

“The pain relief induced by CBD is not only motivated by psychological placebo effects, but also by pharmacological action,” explained study author Martin De Vita, a researcher in the Department of Psychology at the ‘Syracuse University, New York. “It’s a bit of both.”

CBD, or cannabidiol, is typically derived from hemp, a cousin of the marijuana plant, but unlike THC (delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol) – the active ingredient in marijuana – CBD won’t get you high.

In the new study, 15 healthy, painless volunteers participated in experiments involving their response to heat before and after receiving pure CBD oil. To disentangle the actual effect compared to the placebo, the researchers told the participants that they were taking CBD when they were given a placebo, or vice versa, and repeated the experiments.


“CBD and expectations reduced the emotional component of the pain, or how ‘unpleasant’ it was,” De Vita said. “Although the sensation of pain was not completely eliminated, the participants found it to be less bothersome.”

The body’s central nervous system has its own processes to alleviate pain based on information about when (temporal processing) and place (spatial processing) of pain, he explained. “Expectations alone improved temporal pain inhibition, and both CBD and waits improved spatial pain inhibition independently, but not when combined,” De Vita said.

Now, researchers hope to see how CBD affects pain perception in people with different pain conditions, he noted.

The study was published online recently in Experimental and clinical psychopharmacology.

The researchers chose pure CBD oil for the study. “Commercially available CBD products differ in content and purity, so results may be different for different CBD products, depending on what other compounds they may or may not contain,” De Vita pointed out.


Kevin Boehnke, a researcher in the Department of Anesthesiology and the Chronic Pain and Fatigue Research Center at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, agreed.


The buyer is wary when it comes to choosing CBD products. “If you live in a state where marijuana is legal, medical dispensaries often have pure CBD products,” Boehnke said. “Otherwise, choose a brand from a reputable company with a third-party seal of approval that readily shares their Certificate of Analysis (COA).” This document provides the results of any testing of the supplements, he explained.

Unfortunately, the floodgates are already open when it comes to CBD, and science has a lot of catching up to do, said Boehnke, who was not involved in the new study.

“This is an interesting little pilot study that shows that the effects of placebo and drugs play a role in how CBD affects pain,” he said. Still, Boehnke cautioned that this study was conducted on healthy volunteers, so it can’t tell us much about how CBD affects people with actual pain conditions or if CBD is.

More information

Learn more about the potential risks and benefits of CBD from the United States Food and Drug Administration.

SOURCES: Martin De Vita, researcher, psychology, Syracuse University College of Arts and Sciences, Syracuse, NY; Kevin Boehnke, PhD, Research Fellow, Department of Anesthesiology and Chronic Pain and Fatigue Research Center, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor; Experimental and clinical psychopharmacology, April 22, 2021, online

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