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What Techniques Might Be Used to Harness Placebo Effects in Non-malignant pain?

What Techniques Might Be Used to Harness Placebo Effects in Non-malignant pain? A Literature Review and Survey to Develop a Taxonomy

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Felicity L Bishop, Beverly Coghlan, Adam WA Geraghty,
Hazel Everitt, Paul Little, Michelle M Holmes,
Dionysis Seretis, George Lewith

Department of Psychology,
Faculty of Social Human and Mathematical Sciences,
University of Southampton,
Southampton, UK.

OBJECTIVES:   Placebo effects can be clinically meaningful but are seldom fully exploited in clinical practice. This review aimed to facilitate translational research by producing a taxonomy of techniques that could augment placebo analgesia in clinical practice.

DESIGN:   Literature review and survey.

METHODS:   We systematically analysed methods which could plausibly be used to elicit placebo effects in 169 clinical and laboratory-based studies involving non-malignant pain, drawn from seven systematic reviews. In a validation exercise, we surveyed 33 leading placebo researchers (mean 12 years’ research experience, SD 9.8), who were asked to comment on and add to the draft taxonomy derived from the literature.

RESULTS:   The final taxonomy defines 30 procedures that may contribute to placebo effects in clinical and experimental research, proposes 60 possible clinical applications and classifies procedures into five domains: the patient’s characteristics and belief (5 procedures and 11 clinical applications), the practitioner’s characteristics and beliefs (2 procedures and 4 clinical applications), the healthcare setting (8 procedures and 13 clinical applications), treatment characteristics (8 procedures and 14 clinical applications) and the patient—practitioner interaction (7 procedures and 18 clinical applications).

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CONCLUSION:   The taxonomy provides a preliminary and novel tool with potential to guide translational research aiming to harness placebo effects for patient benefit in practice.

KEYWORDS:   classification; nocebo effect; placebo effect; placebos; review; translational research

Strengths and limitations of this study

  • This is a novel attempt to use existing studies to identify the factors that might contribute to placebo effects and the associated procedures that could be simply and ethically adapted for clinical practice, subject to further testing.

  • We drew on both clinical trials and laboratory-based studies of placebo effects, in order to generate a more comprehensive list of factors that might contribute to placebo effects than would be possible by relying on just one literature.

  • A systematic approach to data synthesis, based on qualitative research methods, was used to identify and classify procedures that might contribute to placebo effects in clinical trials.

  • The development of the taxonomy did not incorporate very recent placebo trials or studies and the selection of reviews used to determine which original studies to include in the development process was somewhat arbitrary.

  • Our taxonomy is presented not as an exhaustive compilation of current methods used in placebo research but as a detailed and systematic guide for future research, which can in turn further refine the taxonomy.

From the FULL TEXT Article:


There is compelling evidence that factors other than the so-called active components of treatment can have clinically meaningful effects on symptoms, particularly non-malignant pain. [1–4] Such ‘placebo effects’ can be defined as the physiological and/or psychological changes that result from the meaning derived by a person in a healthcare setting. [5, 6] Expectations — which can be generated, for example, by verbal suggestion or previous experience — play a key role in placebo effects. [7] These effects may be as large as treatment effects [8] and occur throughout medicine, especially when doctors and patients interact with each other. They are not routinely deliberately harnessed for patient benefit in clinical practice, [9] possibly because doctors often assume they must deceive patients in order to elicit placebo effects. [10, 11]

However, this assumption is mistaken because it is not necessary to prescribe placebos in order to elicit placebo effects. For example, the overall analgesic effect of an opioid derives from its specific pharmaceutical actions and its psychological components, that is, the expectations and meaning that the patient derives when consulting the doctor and taking the medicine. [12, 13] The same is true for other types of intervention including physical, surgical and psychotherapies. One approach that has received initial support is for doctors to use positive suggestion to enhance patients’ expectations of benefit. [4] Furthermore, preliminary evidence suggests that openly prescribing placebos might elicit clinically meaningful placebo effects in irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and depression, [14, 15] although this approach entails its own set of ethical challenges. [16, 17]

Placebo researchers have called for more translational research in this field. [11, 18–20] Such work has thus far typically focused on ethical considerations and narrative approaches to drawing out implications for clinical practice from the placebo literature. We suggest a systematic approach to translational research might be helpful. Many techniques or procedures contribute to placebo effects and could potentially be simply and ethically adapted for clinical practice, subject to further testing in practice settings. [21] In order to identify and describe such techniques and thus provide some direction for future research, we reviewed experimental and clinical studies of placebo effects in non-malignant pain. We focused on non-malignant pain because it can be difficult to manage (particularly with current concerns about opioids [22]), the mechanisms underpinning placebo analgesia are reasonably well understood, [23] laboratory-based experimental studies often focus on placebo analgesia and patients with pain have been shown to display substantial and clinically significant placebo effects. [1] The aim of this project was to facilitate translational research by producing a taxonomy of techniques that may contribute to placebo effects observed in research settings and could be studied as options for augmenting placebo enhancement of analgesia in clinical practice.

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