Preserved Capacity for Placebo Analgesia in the Elderly

Published:September 08, 2016DOI:


      • Prevalence of chronic pain rises with age.
      • Age-related changes in the descending modulatory pathways could be a possible mechanism.
      • We experimentally explored endogenous pain modulation in younger compared with older adults.
      • Older adults show preserved capacity for endogenous pain modulation.
      • In the future, nonpharmacological analgesic treatment strategies could be enhanced in the elderly.


      The prevalence of chronic pain rises with increasing age. It has been suggested that the mechanisms responsible for the development of chronic pain overlap with mechanisms involved in aging, potentially implicating age-related changes in descending modulatory pathways. This observation raises the question whether other forms of endogenous pain modulation, in particular placebo analgesia, become compromised with age. Because of the known contribution of placebo effects to analgesic treatment outcomes this question is of important clinical relevance. In this study, we compared the response to thermal painful stimuli and the capacity for endogenous pain modulation between younger and older adults using a well established placebo analgesia paradigm involving expectancy and conditioning components. We recruited 30 younger (age 23–40 years, mean = 27.04, standard error of the mean ± .61) and 24 older adults (60–80 years, mean = 69.3, standard error of the mean ± .89). We observed increased heat pain thresholds and higher pain intensity ratings (in response to physically identical heat stimulation) in the older compared with the younger group. However, the placebo analgesic response was comparable between both age groups of healthy participants. The preserved capacity for placebo analgesia in our sample of older participants highlights the potential to use nonpharmacological analgesic treatment strategies in this age group and to exploit placebo mechanisms as an add-on to existing analgesic (pharmacological) treatment strategies.


      In contrast to the commonly shared view that endogenous pain modulation declines with age we found a comparable capacity for placebo analgesia in a group of healthy older and younger adults.

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