Prior pain exposure and mere possession of a placebo analgesic predict placebo analgesia

Wai Lan Victoria YEUNG, Andrew L GEERS

Research output: Journal PublicationsJournal Article (refereed)peer-review


A recent study found that merely possessing a placebo analgesic reduces pain. The current study tested for a possible moderator of this effect. Specifically, does the mere possession of a placebo analgesic affect pain for individuals with and without immediate prior experience with the pain task? Healthy participants (N=127) were randomized to prior pain (PP) condition or without prior pain (No-PP) condition. In the PP condition, participants first did a preliminary trial of a cold pressor test (CPT) to induce direct experience with this pain stimulus. Then they were randomized to possess an inert cream described as either an analgesic cream or an anti-itch cream (pain-irrelevant control object). Participants then completed the main CPT. In the No-PP condition, participants underwent identical procedures and randomization except that they did not do a preliminary CPT, thus having no immediate prior CPT pain experience. We found a significant prior pain experience and possession status interaction effect on placebo analgesia. Participants in the No-PP condition showed evidence of lower pain when they merely possessed an analgesic cream than an anti-itch cream. Such mere possession effect was not found in the PP condition. The impact of expectancy and emotion on the underlying process are discussed.
Original languageEnglish
JournalJournal of Pain
Early online date27 Oct 2020
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 27 Oct 2020

Bibliographical note

Both authors have no conflicts of interest to report. The research was supported by the Faculty Research Grant (F102133) and General Research Fund (13600617) awarded by the Research Grant Council, Hong Kong to the first author. We thank Mr. Pui Chuen Tam, Mr. Eric Kenson Yau, Mr. Ting Kin Ng, and Ms Cherry Wan Cheuk Yue for providing research support.


  • expectation
  • placebo
  • mere possession
  • analgesia
  • cold pressor

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