Sugar pills relieve pain for some people with chronic pain – new research

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sugar pills, placebo, chronic pain, arthritis digest magazineIn the future doctors may prescribe sugar pills for some people with chronic pain based on their brain anatomy and psychology. And the pills will reduce their pain as effectively as any powerful drug on the market, according to new research in Nature Communications.

About 60 people with chronic back pain were split into groups. In one group the people didn’t know if they were given a drug or the placebo. Researchers didn’t study the people who had the real drug. The other group included people who came to the clinic but didn’t get a placebo or drug. They were the control group.

The people whose pain decreased as a result of the sugar pill had similar brain anatomies and psychological traits. The right side of their emotional brain was larger than the left and they had a larger cortical sensory area than people who were not responsive to the placebo. The chronic pain placebo responders also were emotionally self-aware, sensitive to painful situations and mindful of their environment.

“Their brain is already tuned to respond,” explains Prof A Vania Apkarian, lead researcher. “They have the appropriate psychology and biology that puts them in a cognitive state that as soon as you say, ‘this may make your pain better,’ their pain gets better.”

“You can tell them, ‘I’m giving you a drug that has no physiological effect but your brain will respond to it’. You don’t need to hide it. There is a biology behind the placebo response.

“It’s much better to give someone a non-active drug rather than an active drug and get the same result. Most pharmacological treatments have long-term adverse effects or addictive properties. Placebo becomes as good an option for treatment as any drug we have on the market.”

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