Open-label placebo for chronic low back pain: a 5-year follow-up

Pain. 2021 May 1;162(5):1521-1527. doi: 10.1097/j.pain.0000000000002162.


Long-term follow-up of patients treated with open-label placebo (OLP) are nonexistent. In this article, we report a 5-year follow-up of a 3-week OLP randomized controlled trial (RCT) in patients with chronic low back pain. We recontacted the participants of original RCT and reassessed their pain, disability, and use of pain medication. We obtained follow-up data from 55 participants (82% of those who took OLP during the parent RCT), with a mean elapsed time between the end of the 3 weeks placebo trial and the follow-up interview of 55 months (SD = 7.85). We found significant reductions in both pain and disability between the baseline assessment immediately before the 3 weeks trial with placebo pills and the original trial endpoint (P < 0.00001 for the 2 primary outcomes of pain and disability). At the 5-year follow-up, we found no significant differences in either outcome between original trial endpoint and follow-up. Improvements persisted after 5 years and were accompanied by substantial reductions compared with baseline in the use of pain medication (from 87% to 38%), comprising analgesics (from 80% to 31%), antidepressants (from 24% to 11%), and benzodiazepines (from 15% to 5%). By contrast, the use of alternative approaches to pain management increased (from 18% to 29%). Although the reduction in pain and medication is comparable with the improvements that occurred in the original study, a major limitation of this long-term follow-up is the absence of controls for spontaneous improvement and new cointerventions. Nonetheless, our data suggest that reductions in pain and disability after OLP may be long lasting.

Publication types

  • Randomized Controlled Trial
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Analgesics / therapeutic use
  • Chronic Pain* / drug therapy
  • Follow-Up Studies
  • Humans
  • Low Back Pain* / drug therapy
  • Research
  • Treatment Outcome


  • Analgesics