The Placebo Effect in Pain Therapies

Annu Rev Pharmacol Toxicol. 2019 Jan 6:59:191-211. doi: 10.1146/annurev-pharmtox-010818-021542. Epub 2018 Sep 14.


Pharmacological strategies for pain management have primarily focused on dampening ascending neurotransmission and on opioid receptor-mediated therapies. Little is known about the contribution of endogenous descending modulatory systems to clinical pain outcomes and why some patients are mildly affected while others suffer debilitating pain-induced dysfunctions. Placebo effects that arise from patients' positive expectancies and the underlying endogenous modulatory mechanisms may in part account for the variability in pain experience and severity, adherence to treatment, distinct coping strategies, and chronicity. Expectancy-induced analgesia and placebo effects in general have emerged as useful models to assess individual endogenous pain modulatory systems. Different systems and mechanisms trigger placebo effects that highly impact pain processing, clinical outcomes, and sense of well-being. This review illustrates critical elements of placebo mechanisms that inform the methodology of clinical trials, the discovery of new therapeutic targets, and the advancement of personalized pain management.

Keywords: conditioning; dose-extending placebos; expectation; modeling; nocebo; opioids; vasopressin.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Clinical Trials as Topic
  • Humans
  • Pain / drug therapy*
  • Pain / metabolism
  • Pain Management / methods
  • Placebo Effect
  • Receptors, Opioid / metabolism


  • Receptors, Opioid