August 28, 2009

Placebos May Truly Reduce Pain

For years, placebos have been given as a medical alternative to falsely reinforce a patient's expectations of feeling better. New research shows this dummy medicine may serve a higher purpose.

A new study conducted at the University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf in Germany shows that simply expecting a treatment to reduce pain can act as a pain killer. Endogenous opioids, produced naturally within the brain, are released into the body in small doses when placebos are taken. Hypothetically, the opioids "inhibit pain processing in the spinal cord and, therefore, subsequently reduce pain-related responses in the brain, leading to a decreased pain experience," lead author Falk Eippert was quoted as saying.

Through brain imaging techniques, researchers examined brainstem responses for two groups expecting pain relief. The first group received a drug, naloxone, to block opioid signaling. The second group maintained a natural opioid state. Experts found the group receiving naloxone experienced higher pain than those in a natural opioid state.

Experts plan to extend their study of opioids to other pain relief methods including hypnosis and attentional distraction.

SOURCE: Neuron, published by Cell Press, August 27, 2009