Placebo treatments may help patients with chronic lower back pain

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Patients who knew they were taking a placebo pill still experienced less lower back pain.
Patients who knew they were taking a placebo pill still experienced less lower back pain.

(HealthDay News) — Patients who knowingly took a placebo pill while undergoing traditional treatment for lower back pain had less pain and disability than those who received traditional treatment alone, according to a study published in Pain.

Ted Kaptchuk, a joint senior author of the study and director of the Program in Placebo Studies and the Therapeutic Encounter at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, and colleagues gave 97 patients with chronic low back pain a 15-minute explanation of the placebo effect. Most were already taking medications for their pain, including nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories. The patients were divided into 2 groups: those who only received traditional treatment and those who used traditional treatment along with a placebo pill, labeled "placebo pills."


The researchers found that after 3 weeks, the placebo group experienced a 30% reduction in their usual and maximum pain levels. The traditional treatment group reported a 9% decrease in their usual amount of pain and a 16% reduction in their maximum pain. Pain-related disability was essentially unchanged among those who only received the traditional treatment, while those who took the placebo pill experienced a 29% drop in disability.

The researchers noted, however, that the effectiveness of placebo pills also relies on a strong doctor-patient relationship. "Patients were interested in what would happen and enjoyed this novel approach to their pain. They felt empowered," lead author Claudia Carvalho, PhD, of the Instituto Superior de Psicologia Aplicada in Lisbon, Portugal, said in a Beth Israel news release. "Taking placebo pills to relieve symptoms without a warm and empathetic relationship with a health care provider probably would not work."


  1. Carvalho C, Caetano JM, Cunha L, et al. Open-label placebo treatment in chonic lower back pain: a randomized controlled trial. Pain. 2016; doi:10.1097/j.pain.0000000000000700.
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