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Many Treat Health Conditions With CBD Even When Proven Treatments Are Available, Reddit Study Finds

By Alexander Beadle

Published: Oct 19, 2020   
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Scientists are pushing for further public health campaigns on CBD use and safety after a new social media analysis has found high volumes of people using the cannabinoid to treat diagnosable health conditions, despite the existence of other established and proven medical therapies.

The analysis, published in JAMA Network Open, looked at a random sample of posts from the Reddit forum r/CBD and found that roughly 12 percent of all posts were testimonials of CBD use. Of these, 90 percent included at least one claim that CBD could treat a diagnosable condition.

While CBD is sometimes marketed as a panacea for all ailments, in actuality the drug has only been approved for use as a medicine by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in one case, for the treatment of Lennox-Gastaut syndrome and Dravet syndrome, two rare forms of childhood epilepsy.

The study’s authors say they are concerned that people may actually be prolonging their illness unnecessarily by choosing to use CBD where other treatments may be more effective.

Most reported CBD use for diagnosable psychiatric conditions

Despite the surging popularity of CBD, to date, there have been no large-scale surveys of active CBD users in the United States. This makes it particularly difficult to establish any trends in motivations for use, or if the cannabinoid is indeed being used as a substitute or adjunct medication by those who use it. This new study looked to fill this knowledge gap by assessing the largest pool of publicly available, anecdotal data on CBD use they could find, social media posts.

The r/CBD forum on Reddit contains a large community of over 113,000 registered members and over 100,000 unique posts, providing a useful sample population to draw from. The researchers randomly sampled 3000 posts in the forum and filtered these to determine how many were testimonial-style pieces from users describing their own personal experiences with their CBD.

In total, 376 testimonial posts were identified from the random sample of 3,000 posts, implying by extension that around 12 percent of all posts in r/CBD are similar testimonials to CBD’s effects. At least one claim that CBD could positively treat a diagnosable medical condition was contained in 90 percent of the testimonial posts. Roughly 30 percent of the testimonials also contained claims of at least one wellness benefit following CBD use.

Psychiatric conditions were the most commonly cited diagnosable condition in these posts; nearly 64 percent of testimonials mentioned at least one condition of this type, such as autism or depression. Orthopedic conditions were the next most commonly mentioned; just over 26 percent of testimonials mentioned arthritis, cramps, musculoskeletal pain and other such conditions.

Sleeping problems, neurological conditions, and gastroenterological issues were also reported, making up 14.6 percent, 6.9 percent, and 3.9 percent of posts, respectively. Other conditions, categorized as addiction, cardiology, dermatology, oral health, ophthalmology, and sexual health, also received multiple mentions but were each featured in less than 2 percent of posts.

The testimonials also mentioned some form of mental wellness benefit in 29.5 percent of posts, such as “CBD has helped me to quiet my racing thoughts.” Physical wellness, such as perceived energy levels, was mentioned much less frequently, featuring in only 1.4 percent of posts.

More research needed on CBD’s effects and on public perception

The researchers noted that the rate of monthly posts posted to the r/CBD forum mirrored the increase in interest in CBD over the past few years. With such a large member base, the researchers believe that their findings suggest that the public already perceives CBD as an effective therapy for many conditions, “in ways that are potentially detrimental to public health.”

In a piece of invited commentary accompanying the research paper, Wilson Compton, MD, and Emily Einstein, PhD, of the National Institute of Drug Abuse, said that the study “suggests that some persons with an addictive disorder are using CBD to treat their own condition. Such use of an unproven treatment could mean that effective treatments are not properly used; in some cases, this could result in serious harm.”

“Findings from ongoing and future research might show that CBD can be effective for addictions and other indications,” they add. “If there is supporting evidence, the National Institutes of Health may be able to fund the research that can test CBD as a medication, such as the potential use of CBD for addictive disorders.”

Despite the usefulness of the Reddit forum as a large, naturally occurring sample size for study, the authors of the study are also careful to note that it is unclear whether these results are actually reflective of the general population given that no external comparisons currently exist.

In general, the Reddit user demographic is younger and male, but this could vary between subreddits in unknown ways. They also recognize that it is particularly hard to accurately estimate all diagnosable conditions. For example, an individual taking CBD for sadness may actually have undiagnosed depression.

Despite its limitations, the researchers believe the perceptions discovered in this study warrant a multipronged response from regulators, healthcare professionals, and educators. They suggest that regulators could look to enforce rules on market practices that might be encouraging CBD use for diagnosable conditions. Doctors could also proactively engage with their patients over any current CBD use and redirect them to other treatments, they add, and public health agencies could run informational campaigns specifically encouraging potential patients to seek advice from healthcare professionals in lieu of self-administering CBD.


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