Dozens of Prescription Pill Bottles

Is cannabis pain relief a placebo effect? According to a new review of studies, there’s good evidence that cannabis doesn’t relieve pain.

The meta-analysis looked at 20 randomized controlled studies that included almost 1500 people, most of whom had pain from multiple sclerosis or neuropathic pain.

Some studies used cannabis flower, but others used pharmaceutical derivatives of cannabis, like nabiximols or dronabinol.

In essence, researchers found that cannabis worked no better than a sugar pill for diminishing pain. The conclusion seems to be: if you believe cannabis will work, then it will work.

But how does typical pain-relieving medication fair against placebos?

What is a Placebo?

Cannabis Pain Relief A Placebo?

You find the same results if you look at clinical trials for common pain meds, such as aspirin. Placebos provide about the same amount of pain relief as the actual medication.

The only exception to this rule is opioids.

Now, no one says aspirin or ibuprofen are useless. That these medications don’t work. But, suppose you read the headline: Pain relief from aspirin comes from a belief it helps, study finds.

It’s telling how corporate journalists don’t report on the placebo effect of common pain medications like they do with cannabis.

It’s likely because cannabis headlines create clicks and impressions. Pharmaceutical advertisers also love it when news content helps their bottom line.

It’s why the US media had a meltdown over Ivermectin for covid-19 (in fact, any treatment that wasn’t a patented mRNA vaccine was demonized). At the same time, other countries and their medical associations were fine with alternative treatments.

Anything to get us out of a pandemic, right?

So this latest meta-analysis of randomized control studies doesn’t prove anything we didn’t already know. It certainly doesn’t disprove that cannabis can provide pain relief any more than clinical trials on aspirin debunk its efficacy.

If anything, this new review shows that even a sugar pill can relieve pain. The placebo effect is powerful. It isn’t just a mental process. When you give someone a placebo, neurotransmitters are activated, including our endocannabinoids.

Is Cannabis Really No Better Than a Placebo?

Cannabis Pain Relief A Placebo?

So is cannabis really no better than a placebo? Technically, it looks that way. But technically, you could say the same about ibuprofen.

But something tells me next time you have a headache, you won’t be reaching for a sugar pill.

The problem is in how we define and treat chronic pain. There is a complex relationship between physiological stress responses and chronic pain symptoms. There is an inevitable subjectivity to describing pain.

Suppose opioids cause dependency and worsening health outcomes, and other medications do too much damage to the liver. In that case, there’s nothing wrong with using cannabis for pain relief.

Chronic, low-grade inflammation can result in cancer, pain, cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, and other health problems. Cannabis, particularly CBD, is an anti-inflammatory. So not only can cannabis provide pain relief, it can work on the fundamental issues that may be causing your chronic pain.

The Takeaway

Cannabis Pain Relief A Placebo?

The takeaway? Read beyond the headlines, and don’t trust media that relies on large pharmaceutical companies for advertising.

Did this review of studies show cannabis is no better than a placebo? Yes, because nearly all clinical trials on pain medication are no better than placebos. Opioids are the only exception.

Did this review of studies look at different strains of cannabis with varying levels of cannabinoid content? No, it mainly used patented cannabis products like Sativex.

Did the media report on this review with objectivity? No. And even the review itself said, “positive media attention [about medical cannabis]… may uphold high expectations and shape placebo responses.”

But ultimately, there’s only one crucial takeaway: does cannabis work for you? If so, great. Keep using it.

And if you suspect you might be wasting your money on a placebo, try different strains, including ones with lower THC and higher CBD. 

See if you feel a difference.