Placebo Pills Effective In Combating Chronic Back Pain

Category: Back Pain | Author: Stefano Sinicropi | Date: October 24, 2016

Chronic Back Pain Placebo Pills

The placebo effect suggests that patients can experience some relief from an ailment by taking a pill prescribed by a doctor, even if the pill is a placebo. In other words, as long as patients believe the pill they are taking is actively helping treat their condition, some people experience some pain relief. Researchers believe the effect works because our mind and bodies may attempt to mimic the effect of the expected medication.

Following this line of thinking, it would stand to reason that the placebo effect would only work if the patient believes they are getting a medication with an active ingredient, but that may not be the case. Researchers in Portugal conducted a recent study that found that patients experienced relief from chronic back pain even if they knew the pill they were taking was a placebo.

Back Pain and Placebos

For their study, researchers recruited 97 patients with chronic low back pain. They were all required to watch a 15-minute video on the placebo effect before being split into two groups. One group was told to continue their treatment as usual (TAU), while the other was given an open-label placebo (OLP). Both groups were asked not to make any other major lifestyle changes that could impact their pain.

Participants in the OLP group were given a medicine bottle labeled placebo pills and directed to take two pills of microcrystalline cellulose with no active ingredient each day. Participants were asked to take the pills for three weeks. At the conclusion of the three weeks, researchers found:

  • People in the placebo group reported 30 percent reductions in both usual pain and maximum pain, while people in the TAU reported reductions of 9 percent and 16 percent respectively.
  • Individuals in the placebo group reported a 29 percent drop in pain-related disability, while those in the treatment as usual group saw almost no improvement.

“These findings turn our understanding of the placebo effect on its head,” said study co-author Ted Kaptchuk, director of the Program for Placebo Studies and the Therapeutic Encounter at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. “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 contact 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.”

Moderate Back Pain Decreases

Researchers said that the findings only suggest moderate pain decreases for patients dealing with chronic low back pain, and that patients with serious conditions obviously shouldn’t rely on placebo pills.

“You’re never going to shrink a tumor or unclog an artery with placebo intervention,” said lead author Claudia Carvalho, PHD. “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 statistically significant, and it relieves patients. It’s essential to what medicine means.”

The key here is to get involved in your treatment. Take an active role in helping yourself get better, and odds are you’ll notice some back pain relief.

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