Placebo Pills Can Actually Help With Pain Management, Study Says

A man holding a bottle of pills, possibly placebos

A man holding a bottle of pills, possibly placebos | iStock.com/theevening

Why would anyone knowingly take a placebo? As most of us know, placebos are inactive, or even fake medical treatments. Interestingly enough, there is something called the “placebo effect”, which has curiously shown that taking placebos can still lead to benefits when those taking them are unaware that they’re dealing with an ineffective treatment. But that only really works when the individual isn’t aware that they’re taking a placebo.

So, we’re back to the original question: Why would anyone willingly or knowingly take a placebo? If the findings of a surprising new study prove correct, the answer may be fairly simple — because they work.

Confused? What you need to know is that a placebo is a placebo because it is, in fact, inactive or ineffective. It’s meant to give a person suffering from some medical issue peace of mind, in a sense. It’s supposed to help researchers find real solutions. But a new study has found that when it comes to pain management and painkillers, people taking placebos actually experience pain relief as if they were taking an actual drug.

If this study is correct, it means that the placebo effect can actually be “hacked” and used for pain management. At least that’s what it sounds like. Specifically, the study found that a beneficial placebo effect was present for people suffering from lower back pain, and given fake or inactive “pain killers” to treat it.

Why placebos are effective

Glass prescription bottle with pills

Glass prescription bottle with pills | iStock.com/Jeng_Niamwhan

The paper, published by researchers from Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in the medical journal PAIN, found that this beneficial and purposeful placebo effect was able to reduce back pain by up to 30%. The patients, all suffering from back pain and who knowingly took placebo pills rather than standard pain killers, saw noticeable drops in pain levels despite the fact that there were no active ingredients in the medication.

“These findings turn our understanding of the placebo effect on its head,” said Ted Kaptchuk, one of the paper’s authors and director of the Program for Placebo Studies and the Therapeutic Encounter at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. Kaptchuk is also an associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School.

“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.”

According to an accompanying press release, “at the end of their three-week course of pills, the OLP (open-label placebo) 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 (treatment as usual) 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.”

How? Why?

“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,” Kaptchuk said. “The body responds to that.”

Practical pain management?

Woman holding her knee

Woman holding her knee | iStock.com/kwanchaichaiudom

Clearly, this is a novel study. It’s also a bit of an outlier, and the first to show that the placebo effect, sans deception, can be used in a clinical setting to help patients deal with pain. The researchers made it very clear that the findings here are pretty narrow — that is, we’re not going to cure any chronic diseases with positive thinking.

“You’re never going to shrink a tumor or unclog an artery with placebo intervention,” Kaptchuk said. “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.”

Is this a practical way to approach pain management? If you’re struggling with some sort of chronic pain, should you swallow some sugar pills and try and trick yourself into feeling better? If this study does hold up to scrutiny, there might be something to that plan — you can give it a shot, for what it’s worth. It’s going to be easier on your system than taking ibuprofen, acetaminophen, or prescription painkillers — you can bet on that.

But you shouldn’t expect to be magically cured. This is a pretty incredible finding, there’s no denying that. But is it replicable and practical for the average person dealing with pain management issues? It’s really hard to say.

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