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Combination of Placebo and Distraction Boosts Pain Relief

Last updated:

February 06, 2012
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According to a new study, the placebo effect and distraction, two strong psychological tools for fighting physical pain, can be used together for added benefit.

Scientists have known about the power of the placebo effect -- a positive change in health attributable to suggestion rather than a specific chemical substance or medical procedure -- since the 1950s. No one knows exactly how it works, but it definitely does work. One study, for instance, showed that a saline injection after a tooth extraction worked as well as an injection of morphine, while another study explored the effects of pill color on certain drugs' effectiveness. (It turns out that stimulants work best when they're red or orange and sedatives work best when they're blue or green.)

Distraction, on the other hand, is a more straightforward pain-fighting tool: If you're thinking about a hard math problem or other challenging puzzle, it's hard to think about pain.

Up until this point, scientists thought that distraction and the placebo effect wouldn't work together for the same reason that trying to work on two different mental puzzles wouldn't work -- because the brain would only be able to do one at a time. New research shows that, while the two phenomena do both happen in the same part of the brain, they don't cancel each other out.

In a small study published in Psychological Studies, researchers asked participants to rate the pain they felt from a heated metal square applied to their skin. Participants were then given a topical cream to apply, which researchers described as either a powerful analgesic (false) or a standard hand cream (true). In some of the sessions, researchers asked participants to work on a challenging mental problem in addition to applying the cream, and then rate the pain they felt.

PsychCentral reported that when both approaches were combined, "the level of pain reduction that people experienced added up. There was no interference between them," says Jason T. Buhle, a lead author at Columbia University. "That suggests they rely on separate mechanisms."

Research into the mechanisms at work in the placebo effect is certainly interesting on its own, but there are practical applications too: If the two strategies build on each other instead of interfering with each other, they can be combined clinically to help with pain relief.

"This study shows you can use them together and get the maximum bang for your buck without medications," Buhle said.