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.”

Placebo Effect is All in Our Heads

By Pat Anson, Editor

A new study has given researchers a better understanding why some people given a simple sugar pill will say it significantly reduces their pain.

It’s all in their heads.

Using functional magnetic resonance brain imaging (fMRI), scientists at the Northwestern Medicine and the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago (RIC) have identified for the first time the region of the brain that's responsible for the "placebo effect" in pain relief. It’s an area in the front part of the brain -- called the mid frontal gyrus -- that also plays a key role in our emotions and decision making.

In two clinical trials involving 95 patients with chronic pain from osteoarthritis, researchers found that about half of the participants had mid frontal gyrus that had more connectivity with other parts of the brain and were more likely to respond to the placebo effect.

The use of fMRI images to identify these “placebo responders” and eliminate them from clinical trials could make future research far more reliable. It could also lead to more targeted pain therapy based on a patient’s brain images, instead of a trial-and-error approach that exposes patients to ineffective and sometimes dangerous medications.

"Given the enormous societal toll of chronic pain, being able to predict placebo responders in a chronic pain population could both help the design of personalized medicine and enhance the success of clinical trials," said Marwan Baliki, PhD,  a research scientist at RIC and an assistant professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.

“This can help us better conduct clinical studies by screening out patients that respond to placebo and we can just include patients that do not respond. And we can measure the efficacy of a certain drug in a much more effective manner.”

Baliki told Pain News Network that differences in the brain could explain why some prescription drugs – such as Lyrica (pregabalin) – are effective in giving pain relief to some patients, but not for others.

“If we do the same with Lyrica, maybe we can find another area of the brain that can predict the response to that drug,” he said.

The study findings are being published in PLOS Biology.

"The new technology will allow physicians to see what part of the brain is activated during an individual's pain and choose the specific drug to target this spot," said Vania Apkarian, a professor of physiology at Feinberg and study co-author. "It also will provide more evidence-based measurements. Physicians will be able to measure how the patient's pain region is affected by the drug."

Currently, most clinical studies involving pain are conducted on healthy subjects in controlled experimental settings. Those experiments usually induce acute pain through immersion in cold water, pressure or some other type of applied pain. Baliki says there are significant differences between acute and chronic pain, and the experiments often translate poorly in clinical settings where pain is usually chronic.