A Royal Pain

Mounds of prescription and over-the-counter medications are sold and swallowed to relieve chronic pain, but it seems that placebos – pills or procedures that supposedly have no physiological effect – may sometimes be even more effective than “real” drugs.

The placebo effect is probably involved in a lot of complementary medicine techniques and can work even in animals like rodents through training called Pavlovian conditioning. For example, years ago there was a study in which rodents in pain were given a morphine injection every day for four days. Each time the rodents’ suffering was relieved. On the fifth day, saline (salty water) was injected instead of morphine. Remarkably, it also provided relief due to the animals’ conditioned expectation that the injection would reduce the pain.

When general anesthesia was invented to relieve acute surgical pain, England’s Queen Victoria gave birth to Prince Leopold under chloroform. Although her previous deliveries were painful and made her feel “wretched” – a royal pain, Prince Leopold came into the world painlessly. The Church “had long opposed anesthesia because the Bible said that childbirth should be painful.”

But for chronic pain, because few effective new analgesics have emerged from the pharmaceutical companies, the placebo effect is increasingly being researched as an important methodological tool for relieving pain. One can also teach people suffering pain how best to live with it, but it’s better to reduce the pain, even if that means using placebos.

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