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Cannabis Studies Receive Positive Media Attention Despite Therapeutic Effects

Placebos relieve pain like active cannabinoids in cannabis pain trials. These studies attract media attention independent of clinical outcome, report Karolinska Institutet researchers in JAMA Network Open.

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In cannabis studies for pain, placebos provide similar pain alleviation as active cannabinoids. According to Karolinska Institutet researchers in JAMA Network Open, these studies receive considerable media coverage regardless of the clinical result.

Researchers from the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden describe in a paper published in JAMA Network Open that despite the clinical outcome, these investigations generate significant media publicity (Gedin et al., 2022)

Persistent pain has been a leading cause of years lived with disability, posing a significant burden to healthcare systems.

There is a growing interest in the medicinal effects of cannabis, and countries are beginning to include cannabinoids in their standard health care. Currently, medicinal cannabis is utilized to treat various pain problems, including back pain and cancer pain.

Although patients benefit from double-blind, placebo-controlled trials, there is no evidence that cannabis is superior to a placebo.

The primary author of the study, Filip Gedin, a postdoctoral researcher at the Department of Clinical Neuroscience at the Karolinska Institutet, observed that cannabis studies are frequently portrayed positively in the media, regardless of their findings.

“This is troublesome and can alter expectations regarding the pain-relieving effects of cannabis therapy. The greater the presumed benefit of a medication, the more possible adverse effects can be accepted.”

The report is based on a review of previously published clinical trials comparing cannabis to a placebo for the treatment of clinical pain. The change in pain intensity between before and after therapy was the study’s primary outcome.

The analysis drew from 20 published research encompassing nearly 1,500 persons through September 2021.

The results of the study indicate that pain is assessed as somewhat to significantly less intense following placebo therapy. In addition, the researchers found no difference in pain reduction between cannabis and placebo, corroborating the findings of a previously published meta-analysis.

According to Dr. Gedin, there is a clear and clinically relevant placebo response in cannabis pain studies.

The researchers also analyzed a possible relationship between the extent of the therapeutic effect demonstrated by cannabis studies and the media and academic journal coverage they receive. Altmetric, a tool for measuring media, blog, and social media mentions, was utilized to evaluate the media presence. The academic influence was determined by the number of citations from other scholars.

The examination of media presence comprised a total of 136 news articles from traditional media and blogs, which were categorized as favorable, negative, or neutral based on how the results about the efficacy of cannabis as a treatment for pain were presented.

The researchers discovered that cannabis-related studies received significantly more media coverage than other published studies. Regardless of the amount of the placebo response and the therapeutic benefit of the active ingredient, the coverage was substantial. In addition, they found no correlation between the proportion of positively described news about a study and the stated effect.

The researchers add the disclaimer that their study incorporated varied designs and quality studies, so the findings should be interpreted cautiously.

This study was supported by the Riksbankens Jubileumsfond (Karin Jensen). There are no potential conflicts of interest disclosed by the researchers.

Related Publication

Gedin, F., S. Blome, et al. (2022). “Placebo Response and Media Attention in Randomized Clinical Trials Assessing Cannabis-Based Therapies for Pain: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis.” JAMA Netw Open 5(11): e2243848.

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