New Zealand media reports on chronic pain focus on treatments involving opioids and cannabis to the exclusion of other effective, nondrug treatments, University of Otago researchers conclude in a recently published article. Defined as persistent or recurring pain present for more than 3 months, chronic pain is the leading cause of disability worldwide.

The researchers analyzed 240 news articles reporting on chronic pain published in New Zealand between January 2015 and June 2019. Their findings, which might parallel media coverage of opioids and cannabis in the United States, are published in the January 17, 2020, issue of the New Zealand Medical Journal.

Lead author Dr. Hemakumar Devan, a postdoctoral fellow at the Centre for Health, Activity and Rehabilitation Research at the University of Otago, Wellington’s School of Physiotherapy, found that few of the news stories featured information about nonpharmaceutical treatments for chronic pain, even though these modalities are the preferred option for most chronic pain conditions.

“Pharmacological strategies are only recommended for some chronic pain conditions, such as cancer pain and neuropathic pain. For other pain conditions, drug treatments are recommended to be used with care and caution because of potential side effects and limited long-term effectiveness.”

Coverage of pharmaceutical treatments for chronic pain, Dr. Devan says, centered almost entirely on opioid-based painkillers and cannabis. Stories on opioids mentioned their ineffectiveness in treating chronic pain and their potential for dependence and addiction, while reports about medicinal cannabis presented it as a safe and effective treatment with few side effects—in spite of a lack of scientific evidence supporting its long-term use for chronic pain.

“The personal experience stories about cannabis focused on its positive effects and fewer side effects compared to opioid-based analgesics. There is, however, limited evidence to suggest cannabis as a substitute for opioids and a lack of high-quality evidence to support the use of cannabis for chronic pain,” he writes. “There was no reporting on the potential adverse effects of medicinal cannabis use, such as cognitive deficits, dependency and mood changes, which could particularly affect young people.”

The New Zealand researchers also found media coverage emphasized the challenges associated with living in chronic pain while devoting little attention to resources available to support people to manage pain successfully and live a meaningful life. “Non-drug based self-management strategies, which include exercise, relaxation and cognitive behavioural treatments, are a key component of managing chronic pain and are proven to be effective in the long term.”

For a comprehensive overview of current clinical research and regulatory trends in cannabis-based pain treatments, see the Special Section: CBD & Medical Marijuana in this issue, page 20.

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