…but it still takes some prep work (and maybe even deception) on doctors’ behalf. PsyPost breaks down a study conducted by CU-Boulder graduate student Scott Schafer, Associate Professor Tor Wager, and Luana Colloca:
[Schafer] discovered that the placebo effect still works even if research participants know the treatment they are receiving to ease pain has no medical value whatsoever.
Here’s the hitch: The subjects need ample time – in this case four sessions – to be conditioned to believe the placebo works. Then, even after it is revealed that the treatment is fake, they continue to get pain relief. When participants are told the truth about the treatment after only one session, they don’t show a continued placebo effect.
The findings suggest that reinforcing treatment cues with positive outcomes can create placebo effects that are independent of reported expectations for pain relief. Wager, the senior author of the study, explains: “We’re still learning a lot about the critical ingredients of placebo effects. What we think now is that they require both belief in the power of the treatment and experiences that are consistent with those beliefs. Those experiences make the brain learn to respond to the treatment as a real event. After the learning has occurred, your brain can still respond to the placebo even if you no longer believe in it.”
To conduct the research, Schafer and Colloca applied a ceramic heating element to research subjects’ forearms. They applied enough heat to induce strong pain sensations, though not enough to burn the skin.
Interestingly, Schafer ended up having to turn some potential test subjects away because of a higher than normal pain tolerance on their forearms. Turns out, some of these people were food servers accustomed to carrying hot plates of food to hungry diners.
After applying heat of up to 117.5 degrees Fahrenheit to the research subjects who passed the initial screening, Schafer applied what the subject thought was an analgesic gel on the affected skin then – unbeknownst to the research subject – turned down the temperature. To aid in the charade, the subject was asked to read drug forms and indicate whether they had liver problems or were taking other medications prior to receiving the treatment..
In fact, the treatment was Vaseline with blue food coloring in an official-looking pharmaceutical container.
“They believed the treatment was effective in relieving pain,” Schafer said. “After this process, they had acquired the placebo effect. We tested them with and without the treatment on medium intensity. They reported less pain with the placebo.”
For Schafer, the research findings could open doors to new ways to treat drug addiction or aid in pain management for children or adults who have undergone surgery and are taking strong and potentially addictive painkillers.
“If a child has experience with a drug working, you could wean them off the drug, or switch that drug a placebo, and have them continue taking it,” Schafer said.