Knowingly Taking Placebo Pills Eases Pain

Monday, October 24, 2016 - 14:57

A new study found out that taking placebo pills can ease pain– even if the patient knows they don’t contain actual medicine.

According to a paperpublished in the journal Pain, patients who knowingly took a placebo in conjunction with traditional treatment for lower back pain saw more improvement than those given traditional treatment alone.

"This new research demonstrates that the placebo effect is not necessarily elicited by patients' conscious expectation that they are getting an active medicine, as long thought. Taking a pill in the context of a patient-clinician relationship - even if you know it's a placebo - is a ritual that changes symptoms and probably activates regions of the brain that modulate symptoms," said joint senior author Ted Kaptchuk, director of the Program for Placebo Studies and an associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School.

In this investigation, researchers studied 97 patients with chronic lower back pain (cLBP) and gave all patients a 15-minute explanation of the placebo effect. At the end of their three-week course of pills, the OLP group overall reported 30 percent reductions in both usual pain and maximum pain, compared to 9 percent and 16 percent reductions, respectively, for the TAU group. The group taking placebo pills also saw a 29 percent drop in pain-related disability. Those receiving treatment as usual saw almost no improvement by that measure.

"Our findings demonstrate the placebo effect can be elicited without deception," said lead author, Claudia Carvalho, PhD, of ISPA. "Patients were interested in what would happen and enjoyed this novel approach to their pain. They felt empowered."

"It's not a cure-all, but it makes people feel better, for sure. Our lab is saying you can't throw the placebo into the trash can. It has clinical meaning, it's statically significant, and it relieves patients. It's essential to what medicine means," Kaptchuk noted.


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