Patients still find pain relief in treatments they know will provide no medical value whatsoever, a new study revealed.
Published in The Journal of Pain, the report concluded that if treatment cues are reinforced with positive outcomes, placebo effects that are independent of reported expectations for pain relief can be created.
"We're still learning a lot about the critical ingredients of placebo effects," said study author Scott Schafer in a statement. "What we think now is that they require both belief in the power of the treatment and experiences that are consistent with those beliefs. Those experiences make the brain learn to respond to the treatment as a real event. After the learning has occurred, your brain can still respond to the placebo even if you no longer believe in it."
A continued placebo effect was not seen after only one session of treatment. According to the study's findings, participants need ample time to be conditioned to believe the placebo actually does work. In this study, participants needed at least four sessions.
The research findings could open doors to new ways to treat drug addiction or aid in pain management for children or adults who have undergone surgery and are taking strong and potentially addictive painkiller, Schafer noted.
"If a child has experience with a drug working, you could wean them off the drug, or switch that drug a placebo, and have them continue taking it," Schafer said. "We know placebos induce the release of pain-relieving substances in the brain, but we don't yet know whether this expectation-independent placebo effect is using the same or different systems."
New research finds that the placebo effect still works even if research participants know the treatment they are receiving to ease pain has no medical value whatsoever. In the study, University of Colorado, Boulder (CU) graduate student Scott Schafer sought to advance knowledge about how and when the placebo effect works — or doesn’t.