By Ed Coghlan.
Is there a placebo effect in treating chronic back pain?
A small new study published in Nature Communications indicates that the answer might be yes.
The study found that when some people with chronic back pain took a sugar pill they reported similar relief to when they took pain medication.
Researchers also that people with certain traits reliably responded better to placebos (the sugar pills) than others.
“The standard line has been that placebo response is real, but it is not predictable,” study co-author A. Vania Apkarian, a professor of physiology at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine told Time Magazine, “That’s the classic viewpoint in the literature: that you cannot predict who will respond or how much they will respond. In fact, we can predict both of them.”
As we indicated the study was small—involving only 63 patients who have chronic back pain. No one received any pain medication. About 2/3rds received a sugar pill that they didn’t know was placebo while the rest received nothing at all. The patients tracked their pain on an app and had periodic doctor appointments during the eight-week trial.
While the study was very small, the authors believe that people with certain personalities might be prone to be “helped” by sugar pills—and that medical professionals might be able to make that assessment through personality questionnaires.
They all say that much more study on this topic is needed.
The National Institutes of Health define chronic pain “as pain that persists for 12 weeks or longer, even after an initial injury or underlying cause of acute low back pain has been treated. About 20 percent of people affected by acute low back pain develop chronic low back pain with persistent symptoms at one year. In some cases, treatment successfully relieves chronic low back pain, but in other cases pain persists despite medical and surgical treatment.”