Significant Pain Reduction Benefit, Even When Placebo is Revealed

Findings from a new study conducted at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center suggest that a rethinking of the placebo effect may be in order. The research on patients with chronic low back pain concluded that those who knowingly received a placebo along with traditional therapy reported lower pain scores than those who received the traditional therapy alone. Joint senior author Ted Kaptchuk, director of the Program for Placebo Studies and the Therapeutic Encounter at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, commented, “These findings turn our understanding of the placebo effect on its head. 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.” The findings were published last week in the journal Pain.

The study examined 97 patients with chronic low back pain. All received a verbal explanation of the placebo effect prior to commencing the research. The cohort were then randomized into 2 groups, one of which received treatment as usual, mainly consisting of NSAID medications (but not opioids), and the second receiving this treatment plus medication labelled “placebo pills” with instructions to take twice daily. After 3 weeks, the placebo-enhanced group reported 30% reductions in both typical and maximum pain levels, compared with 9% and 16% reductions respectively for these pain levels by the treatment as usual group. Significantly better improvements in pain related disabilities were also recorded by the group who knowingly took placebo. Dr. Kaptchuk observed, “It’s the benefit of being immersed in treatment: interacting with a physician or nurse, taking pills, all the rituals and symbols of our healthcare system. The body responds to that.”

Read more about the study findings here.

The article abstract may be read here.

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