Patients treated with CBD-rich products were mainly women in their sixties, seeking predominantly chronic pain management.
Our findings show that overall effectiveness of CBD treatment is primarily by patients with moderate to severe symptoms. A deficiency in the endocannabinoid system (ECS) may provide a possible explanation for this result (Russo 2016). The ECS could be more deficient in patients with moderate/severe symptoms compared to mild symptoms leading to increased improvement in the first group. The absence of significant improvement for patients with mild symptoms at baseline may be explained by a smaller margin for symptom improvement. In such patients, CBD treatments may have been targeted to other clinical symptoms not assessed in the current study. There is a probable placebo effect; however, there were no differences in initial CBD doses between the severity groups. Furthermore, associated placebo effect would likely be decreased by FUP3M, also considering the significant treatment cost. The distinct beneficial impact of CBD treatment observed for patients with moderate-severe symptoms could elucidate discrepancies found in the literature.
Limitations are common in real-world data (RWD), especially in retrospective studies. In this study, with no control group, no causality effect can be drawn between CBD-rich treatment and symptom improvement. Most patients treated with CBM present with multiple severe symptoms and the analyses presented here are limited to identify the treatment outcomes for such patients. Further studies can investigate the use of CBD to treat several symptoms simultaneously.
Treatment adjustments occur at follow-up visits as a result of lack of effectiveness, presentation of adverse effects, or social or economic barriers. Adjustments may include a change of the recommended CBD-rich product, method of administration, dosage, or a change in product formulation such as the introduction of THC:CBD-balanced or THC-rich products. We investigated the change from CBD-rich to THC:CBD products during FUP1 by forming two groups based on their product adjustment at FUP1 (CBD-rich vs THC:CBD). Products at FUP1 reflect those recommended at the visit. Therefore, the adjusted treatment affects only the evaluation at FUP2.
CBD-rich products are administered in various methods and formats, but most commonly as oral plant-derived extracts or oils and as inhaled dried flowers. In the Canadian medical cannabis program, CBD-rich cannabis oils contain approximately 0.5–1 mg of THC/mL and 20–25 mg of CBD/mL depending on the product manufacturer. Table 1 provides cannabinoid content and THC:CBD ratio for the three most common oil products (over 85% of patients) authorized at the clinic. Furthermore, product details in this study sample are described in Table 3. The clinic procedure dictates that all products with a ratio of CBD (mg) to THC (mg) higher than 10 are considered CBD-rich products.
There were significant effects of visit, severity group, and visit by group interaction (all ps < 0.001; η 2 p = 0.006, η 2 p = 0.4, η 2 p = 0.1, respectively). Post hoc tests revealed a significant score difference between baseline and FUP1 and FUP2 (both ps < 0.001) but not between FUP1 and FUP2 (p = 0.38). Although there was a large improvement for patients with moderate to severe anxiety symptoms (t(131) = 9.36, p < 0.001), the anxiety scores of patients with mild symptoms increased (t(119) = − 3.19, p < 0.01) from baseline to FUP1 (Fig. 2b).
This study on CBD-rich products demonstrates the potential of RWE for the advancement of medical cannabis research and practice guidelines, especially in a world where CBD use is exponentially increasing but scientific data are limited. It revealed that CBD-rich treatments have a beneficial impact on patients with self-reported moderate or severe symptoms of pain, anxiety, or depression and overall wellbeing but not in patients with mild symptoms. Further investigation is clearly required, but as of now the hyped, and often illegal, marketed claims of CBD as a wellness product are unsubstantiated. Our findings have important and novel implications to clinical practice, especially the examination of treatment plan adjustment during the first follow-up after initiation with CBD treatments. Improvements in access regimes, oversight, and clarification from regulatory agencies are also needed to improve the validity of RWE and assessment of the use of CBD-rich products.
The ANOVA showed main effects of visit, severity group (both ps < 0.001 with η 2 p = 0.04 and η 2 p = 0.4, respectively) and a significant group-by-visit interaction (F(2,620) = 34.47, p < 0.001; η 2 p = 0.1). Post hoc tests revealed a significant score difference between baseline and FUP1 and FUP2 (both ps < 0.01) but not between FUP1 and FUP2 (p = 0.85). Specifically, the scores of moderate/severe group decreased notably (t(110) = 9.56, p < 0.001) between baseline and FUP1 but the scores of the group with mild depression symptoms did not (p = 0.07) (Fig. 2c).
Patients age, sex, and diagnosis were recorded at baseline. Patients completed the ESAS-r (Edmonton Symptom Assessment System-revised version) at each visit. The ESAS-r is a self-administered scale, rating the severity of symptoms from 0 (absence of symptom) to 10 (worst possible severity) at the time of assessment (Hui and Bruera 2017). Symptoms evaluated include six physical- (pain, tiredness, nausea, drowsiness, lack of appetite, and shortness of breath), two emotional- (depression, anxiety), and one overall wellbeing-related symptoms. ESAS scores can be categorized as mild (score 0 to 3) moderate (score 4 to 6) or high (score 7 and above) (Butt et al. 2008) and the threshold for clinically significant improvement is a decrease of 1 point (Hui et al. 2015). Since pain and mental health issues represent the most common symptoms for patients and physicians seeking medical cannabis treatments, we investigated effects on pain, depression, and anxiety symptoms as well as overall wellbeing. For each symptom, two groups of patients were formed: moderate-severe severity group in which a baseline score of 4 or more was recorded and a mild severity group with baseline score of 0 to 3.
“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 Maisto. “The next step is studying the mechanisms underlying these findings and figuring out why giving instructions or CBD itself causes certain reactions to a pain stimulus.”
“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,” asked Martin De Vita, a researcher in the psychology department at Syracuse University’s College of Arts and Sciences. “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.”
“Then we administer a drug, like pure CBD, or a placebo and then re-assess their pain responses and see how they change based on which substance was administered,” said De Vita. Researchers then took it a step farther by manipulating the information given to participants about which substances they received.
Syracuse University Emeritus Psychology Professor Stephen Maisto is a coauthor of the CBD pain relief study. Credit: Syracuse University
Martin De Vita is a researcher in the psychology department at Syracuse University’s College of Arts and Sciences and coauthor of the study. Credit: Syracuse University
Results from his previous study showed that while cannabinoid drugs weren’t reducing the volume of pain, they were “changing the channel making it a little less unpleasant.” According to De Vita, “It’s not sunshine and rainbows pleasant, but something slightly less bothersome. We replicated that in this study and found that CBD and expectancies didn’t significantly reduce the volume of the pain, but they did make it less unpleasant — it didn’t bother them as much.”
For example, whereas pain intensity reflects a “sensory” dimension of pain, unpleasantness represents an “affective,” or emotional, aspect of pain. “If you think of pain as the noxious noise coming from a radio the volume can represent the intensity of the pain, while the station can represent the quality,” said De Vita.