Placebo, nocebo, and neuropathic pain

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Abstract

Over the last decade, the apparent increase in placebo responses in randomized controlled trials (RCTs) of neuropathic pain have complicated and potentially limited development and availability of new effective pain medication. Placebo analgesia and nocebo hyperalgesia effects are well described in nociceptive and idiopathic pain conditions, but less is known about the magnitude and mechanisms of placebo and nocebo effects in neuropathic pain. In neuropathic pain, placebo treatments have primarily been used as control conditions for active agents under investigation in RCTs and these placebo responses are typically not controlled for the natural history of pain and other confounding factors. Recently, mechanistic studies that control for the natural history of pain have investigated placebo and nocebo effects in neuropathic pain in their own right. Large placebo analgesia but no nocebo hyperalgesic effects have been found, and the underlying mechanisms are beginning to be elucidated. Here we review placebo and nocebo effects and the underlying mechanisms in neuropathic pain and compare them with those of nociceptive and idiopathic pain. This allows for a novel discussion on how knowledge of psychological, neurobiological, and genetic factors underlying well-controlled placebo effects may help improve the information that can be obtained from and potentially restore the utility of RCTs.

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