Can Sugar Pills Relieve Chronic Pain?

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

“Sugar pills relieve pain for chronic pain patients”

That is the actual headline in a news release issued this week by the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University. If you’re a pain sufferer and that doesn’t make you laugh or get your blood boiling – then the rest of this article probably will.

So be forewarned.

In an age when many chronic pain patients are being urged to try yoga, meditation, acupuncture and plain old aspirin, Northwestern researchers have concluded that many could find pain relief in a sugar pill.

That conclusion is based on a lengthy but small study of 63 patients with chronic back pain.  Twenty patients were given no treatment, while the rest were given a placebo – a sugar pill that they were told was pain medication. No one was given an actual painkiller.

Over the course of 8 weeks, participants tracked their pain on a smartphone app, MRI brain images were taken, and psychological profiles of each patient were made.

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The study, published in the journal Nature Communications, found that about half the patients who took the placebo had a 30 percent reduction in pain, a level considered just as effective as a real painkiller.

Researchers said patients who responded to the sugar pills had a similar brain anatomy and psychological traits. The right side of their emotional brain was larger than the left, and they had a larger sensory area than people who did not respond to the placebo. The placebo responders also were more emotionally self-aware, sensitive to painful situations and mindful of their environment.

“This is the first brain imaging RCT (randomized controlled trial) specifically designed to study chronic pain patients receiving placebo pills compared to a no treatment arm,” said senior study author A. Vania Apkarian, PhD, a professor of physiology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.  

“Daily pain ratings from a smart phone revealed that patients receiving placebo pills showed stronger pain reduction and a higher response rate compared to patients in the no treatment arm, indicating that placebo pills successfully induced analgesia that could not be explained by the natural history of the patient or the mere exposure to the study.”

Doctors ‘Should Seriously Consider’ Placebos

Although his study is small and needs to be replicated, Apkarian thinks doctors should put his findings to work.

"Clinicians who are treating chronic pain patients should seriously consider that some will get as good a response to a sugar pill as any other drug," he said. "They should use it and see the outcome. This opens up a whole new field."

Giving pain patients sugar pills would not only save healthcare costs, Apkarian says they would eliminate the risk of addiction and other side-effects from pharmaceutical drugs.

"It's much better to give someone a non-active drug rather than an active drug and get the same result," Apkarian said. "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."

The medical community has long known about the potency of the placebo effect and put it to use. Doctors as far back as the late 18th century used placebo treatments “more to please than benefit the patient.”

Today, the gold standard of clinical trials is a “placebo-controlled study” in which some participants are given sugar pills and sham treatments. The medication or therapy being studied has to be found more effective than the placebo for the study to be considered a success.

Time magazine recently published a cover story on placebos, sharing the stories of real patients who find relief in placebo pills even though they know they’re fake.

You don’t need to enroll in a clinical study to take placebos. You can buy a bottle of Zeebo’s “honest placebo pills” for $14.95 on Amazon. Some of the reviews for Zeebo are hilarious.

“I have not bought this product, but just reading about it brightened my day. And the comfort of knowing that if I ever needed a good placebo, its right here available with free shipping and two day delivery. I feel better already!” said one reviewer.

“The pills do every thing promised, which is nothing,” wrote another reviewer. “I purchased them in the forlorn hope that they would fool my demented wife that they helped to relieve her chronic pain. I didn't expect much going in and I wasn't disappointed.”