In the battle against pain, new research suggests an unlikely weapon.

Whether acute or chronic, your pain is real. But it’s also often more than just a physical sensation. The medical community, including your team of Orthology providers, has long looked at pain as a biopsychosocial condition—or one that impacts physical, psychological and sociological aspects of our lives all at once.

So while we understand that pain can have a larger effect on our lives than the immediate sensation, there hasn’t been a large body of research looking at exactly how—or how much—our brain impacts how we experience pain. Until recently.

Treating the physical sensation

In the 1990s, pain began to be considered a “fifth vital sign” alongside things like blood pressure and heart rate. This focus on controlling pain, alongside the availability of new drugs to treat it, ultimately led to both less pain for many people and the opioid epidemic we face today.

Now, decades later, we know more about how well opioids and other medications actually work against pain. Research suggests that while opioids can be effective in treating acute pain, it might be less effective in treating chronic back and joint pain than even over-the-counter acetaminophen or ibuprofen. 

In an effort to treat chronic and other types of pain without opioids—or other medications with negative side effects—researchers have begun exploring new treatments that leverage the connection between how we experience pain physically and how we experience pain mentally.

We know that pain is a real, physical sensation that everyone experiences differently. And leveraging the brain-pain connection is just one of many approaches that might help some find relief. Recent research shows that our mood, level of distraction and expectation of how much something will hurt can all significantly impact what we actually feel.

Leveraging the brain

In light of the studies exploring the mental experience of pain, a growing body of researchers are leveraging the brain-pain connection in pursuit of an unlikely weapon against pain: placebos.

Placebos, substances with no actual pharmaceutical effect, have shown in recent studies to be effective against pain. In one study, patients knowingly taking a placebo to treat knee pain reported reduction in pain and depression and increased function.

More interestingly, these same studies showed that placebos could be effective even in cases when patients knew they were taking a placebo instead of an active medication. Differing from scientific studies and research, giving a patient a placebo without the patient’s knowledge is considered unethical in a healthcare setting. When used in a healthcare setting, doctors prescribe “open-label” placebo treatments, which means that patients are informed beforehand that the medication they receive is a placebo.

While there’s still more work for researchers to do to understand exactly why placebos work, evidence suggests that the brain may be responding to subconscious cues from a medical setting, such as talking to a doctor or taking a pill.

Some researchers believe that genetic variations may also play a part in determining which individuals might be more likely to respond to placebo treatment. Dr. Vania Apkarian, Director of the Center for Translational Pain Research at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and author of two studies on genetics and pain, believes that 30% to 50% of patients experiencing chronic pain could respond to placebo treatments, with effects lasting three months or more.

Understand your pain with an expert

Your Orthology provider is a specialist in understanding pain—and in helping you understand your unique pain, its causes and your options for effective treatment. When you’re in pain, think of Orthology first, so you can get back to living life pain-free.