Pain is a problem that is frequently treated with painkillers. As we are all aware, this has led to a significant problem with addiction to and overdose from opioid painkillers in this country. The reasons for the crisis in prescription opioid addiction and overdose are myriad and have been discussed extensively here and elsewhere. This post is not about the problem, but instead about an opportunity to address it.
The NY Times recently posted an article about the potential to harness the placebo effect to help treat pain which offers an intriguing possibility in the struggle to treat pain without causing addiction and overdose. As Jo Marchant reports, “even when we take a real painkiller, a big chunk of the effect is delivered not by any direct chemical action, but by our expectation that that drug will work. Studies show that widely used painkillers like morphine, buprenorphine and tramadol are markedly less effective if we don’t know we’re taking them.” In fact, placebo effects are so powerful “that drug manufacturers are finding it hard to beat them.” Hence, Marchant suggests that more research should be done to figure out if “prescription” placebos could be used to treat pain.
Marchant recognizes the difficulty with placebos: namely that the effect is generally observed in clinical trials where individuals don’t know if they are getting the active drug or a placebo. In controlled studies, patients expect they will receive a drug that will improve their condition even though they know they might in fact get a placebo. This, as Marchant notes, appears to be a key component of the placebo effect: “[t]he greater our belief that a treatment will work, the better we’ll respond.” There have, however, been studies in which patients knowingly taking placebos still reported statistically significant improvement in their reported level of pain. This leads Marchant to ask the eminently reasonable question, “[w]ith placebo responses in pain so high – and the risks of drugs so severe – why not prescribe a course of ‘honest’ placebos for those who wish to try it, before proceeding, if necessary, to an active drug?”
Pain is ubiquitous in our society and, when chronic, often proves disabling. We know from experience that prescribing opioid painkillers is not the answer to the problem of pain. Perhaps it is time for those of us in the medico-legal world to use whatever muscle we have and advocate for change. A good place to start would be the use of “honest” placebos to treat pain.
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