Placebo effects of a sham opioid solution: a randomized controlled study in patients with chronic low back pain

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This study tested the experimental placebo effect in a group of chronic pain patients. Forty-eight patients having chronic back pain participated in a randomized clinical trial that tested the efficacy of a sham opioid solution (NaCl) compared with an alleged neutral, completely inactive solution (NaCl). We shaped the placebo effect by 2 interventions: verbal instruction and conditioning. The patients were either told that the “solution reduces pain and improves physical capacity” or the “solution is neutral, a placebo.” Half of each group was additionally conditioned (coupling solution with reduced experimental pain), yielding 4 subgroups with 12 participants each. Outcome measures were as follows: the patients' clinical back pain ratings and acute pain ratings (both examined by numerical rating scale 0-10) and self-rated functional capacity (0%-100%; time required for the exercise). Expected pain relief before and after solution intake was also assessed. The inactive solution (NaCl), when presented as an effective treatment (sham “opioid” solution), induced placebo analgesia as evident in lower ratings of the patients' clinical back pain (F(3.12,144.21) = 25.05, P < 0.001), acute pain ratings (F(1.99,87.40) = 18.12, P < 0.01), and time needed to complete a series of daily activities exercises (F(1,44) = 8.51, P < 0.01) as well as increased functional capacity (F(1,44.00) = 19.42, P < 0.001). The 2 manipulations (instruction and conditioning) changed pain expectations, and they were maintained in both sham opioid groups. The results suggest that it may be clinically useful to explicitly integrate placebo analgesia responses into pain management.

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