The specific effects of prior opioid exposure on placebo analgesia and placebo respiratory depression

Pain. 1998 Apr;75(2-3):313-9. doi: 10.1016/s0304-3959(98)00010-4.


Although in most of the cases the placebo response appears to be unpredictable, several factors have been considered in order to explain the placebo analgesic effect. For example, it is widely recognized, albeit with little empirical evidence, that placebo analgesia is more likely to occur after a successful analgesic therapy. On the basis of this assumption, we tested the placebo response in a population of patients who were treated with buprenorphine the day before for relieving postoperative pain. However, due to the high variability of opioid responsiveness, buprenorphine was effective in some patients and poorly effective in some others. Similarly, buprenorphine produced respiratory depression with a large variability, ranging from mild depression to no effect. We found that the placebo analgesic response depended on the buprenorphine analgesic effectiveness of the previous day. Analogously, we found that a placebo respiratory depressant response was more pronounced in those patients with a respiratory depressant response to buprenorphine on the day before, irrespective of the analgesic effectiveness. These specific effects suggest that (1) the placebo effect is experience-dependent; (2) the mechanisms underlying placebo analgesia and placebo respiratory depression are independent from each other and, by considering the role of endogenous opioids in placebo analgesia, might involve different subpopulations of opioid receptors.

Publication types

  • Clinical Trial
  • Randomized Controlled Trial

MeSH terms

  • Analgesia*
  • Analgesics, Opioid / adverse effects*
  • Analgesics, Opioid / therapeutic use*
  • Buprenorphine / adverse effects*
  • Buprenorphine / therapeutic use*
  • Dose-Response Relationship, Drug
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Placebos / adverse effects*
  • Placebos / therapeutic use*
  • Respiratory Insufficiency / chemically induced*
  • Retreatment


  • Analgesics, Opioid
  • Placebos
  • Buprenorphine