Study says CBD is bogus as pain remedy, producers ‘trading on hope and despair’

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CBD products do not reduce chronic pain, are potentially harmful to health, and are ultimately a waste of money, according to new research from the UK published in a leading medical journal.

A team at the University of Bath led the research project, carried out on behalf of the International Association for the Study of Pain (IASP) and published in the Journal of Pain from Dutch scientific publisher Elsevier.

“CBD presents consumers with a big problem,” said Chris Eccleston, the senior author of the study and a professor at the University’s Centre for Pain Research. “It’s touted as a cure for all pain but there’s a complete lack of quality evidence that it has any positive effects.”

“It’s almost as if chronic pain patients don’t matter, and that we’re happy for people to trade on hope and despair,” he added.

‘Adverse events’

The research team also included experts from the University of Oxford (UK) and the University of Alberta in Canada. The team analyzed studies published in scientific journals up to late 2023 which showed that:

  • Of 16 randomized controlled trials that have explored the link between pain and pharmaceutical-grade CBD, 15 have shown no positive results, with CBD being no better than a placebo at relieving pain.
  • Over-the-counter CBD products, generally not covered by any trade standards, often have amounts of CBD that are much less than, or much more than advertised.
  • Direct-to-consumer CBD products may contain chemicals other than CBD, some of which may be harmful or illegal in some jurisdictions, and may contain high levels of THC.

Also, meta-analysis – which combines data from multiple sources into one comprehensive study – links CBD to increased rates of “serious adverse events,” including liver toxicity, the researchers reported.

UK review underway

The UK’s Food Standards Agency (FSA) is currently reviewing roughly 12,000 CBD products under the government’s standards for new or “novel” foods. Europe is also grappling with an approval regime.

The FSA has advised CBD not be taken by people in vulnerable groups, including children, persons taking medication, those who are pregnant or breastfeeding, and women trying to conceive, suggesting there is evidence of some adverse impacts on the liver and thyroid.

FSA sent out grave warnings over CBD one year ago as it released a report that claimed 10 people have died from taking the products. At the time, FSA said it had received 860 reports of adverse reactions to CBD products. 

Chaos in U.S.

Federal rules and standards for CBD have yet to be established in the U.S., leading to regulatory chaos. The Food & Drug Administration (FDA) has repeatedly raised concerns regarding CBD’s potentially harmful effects on pregnant women and fetuses, young children, the elderly, and the liver and male reproductive system. In a paper released in March 2023, the FDA concluded long-term consumption of CBD needs further research.

Concentrated CBD has shown promise as a treatment for rare forms of epilepsy. Epidiolex, a THC-free prescription drug that contains high levels of CBD, is approved in both the UK, by the Medicines and Healthcare Regulatory Agency, and in the U.S. by the FDA.

‘Wild promises’

An estimated 20% of the adult population lives with chronic pain, and sufferers are often desperate for help to alleviate their symptoms, the study points out, suggesting it’s no surprise then that many people turn to CBD products despite their high price and the lack of evidence that they are effective and safe.

“For too many people with chronic pain, there’s no medicine that manages their pain,” said Andrew Moore, co-author of the study and former senior pain researcher in the Nuffield Division of Anaesthetics at Oxford. “This makes them vulnerable to the wild promises made about CBD.”

According to Moore, healthcare regulators appear reluctant to act against spurious claims made by some CBD makers because they don’t want to interfere in the booming market.

“Without a countervailing body to keep the CBD sellers in check, it’s unlikely that the false promises being made about the analgesic effects of CBD will slow down in the years ahead,” Moore said.

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