• Prior Therapeutic Experiences, Not Expectation Ratings, Predict Placebo Effects: An Experimental Study in Chronic Pain and Healthy Participants

      Colloca, L.; Akintola, T.; Haycock, N.R.; Blasini, M.; Thomas, S.; Phillips, J.; Corsi, N.; Schenk, L.A.; Wang, Y. (S. Karger AG, 2020)
      Introduction: Many clinical trials fail because of placebo responses. Prior therapeutic experiences and patients' expectations may affect the capacity to respond to placebos in chronic disorders. Objective: The scope of this study in 763 chronic orofacial pain and healthy study participants was to compare the magnitude and prevalence of placebo effects and determine the putative role of prior therapeutic experiences vs. expectations. Methods: We tested placebo propensity in a laboratory setting by using 2 distinct levels of individually tailored painful stimulations (high pain and low pain) to reinforce expectations and provide a hypoalgesic experience (conditioning phase). Afterwards, both levels of pain were surreptitiously set at a moderate pain level to test for placebo effects (testing phase). Pain and expectation ratings were assessed as primary outcomes using visual analog scales. Results: In both chronic pain and healthy participants, placebo effects were similar in magnitude, with the larger prevalence of responders in the healthy participants. Although chronic pain participants reported higher pain relief expectations, expectations did not account for the occurrence of placebo effects. Rather, prior experience via conditioning strength mediated placebo effects in both pain and healthy participants. Conclusions: These findings indicate that participants with chronic pain conditions display robust placebo effects that are not mediated by expectations but are instead directly linked to prior therapeutic experiences. This confirms the importance of assessing the therapeutic history while raising questions about the utility of expectation ratings. Future research is needed to enhance prediction of responses to placebos, which will ultimately improve clinical trial designs.