Inès Daguet,1,2 Kayla Bergeron-Vézina,1,2 Marie-Philippe Harvey,1,2 Marylie Martel,1,2 Guillaume Léonard2,3
1Faculté de médecine et des sciences de la santé, Université de Sherbrooke, Sherbrooke, QC, Canada; 2Research Center on Aging, Institute of Geriatrics of Sherbrooke, Sherbrooke, QC, Canada; 3École de réadaptation, Faculté de médecine et des sciences de la santé, Université de Sherbrooke, Sherbrooke, QC, Canada
Purpose: Placebo analgesia refers to a perceived reduction in pain intensity following the administration of a simulated or otherwise medically ineffective treatment. Previous studies have shown that many factors can influence the magnitude of placebo analgesia. However, few investigations have examined the effect of age on placebo analgesia, and none have done it in the context of electrotherapeutic interventions. The objective of this study is to compare the placebo response induced by sham transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) between young and older individuals, using an experimental heat-pain paradigm.
Patients and methods: Twenty-two young (21–39 years) and 22 older (58–76 years) healthy adults participated in this comparative study. Experimental heat pain was evoked with a thermode (2-min stimulation at a constant individually adjusted temperature) applied on the lumbar region. Participants were asked to evaluate the intensity of their pain using a computerized visual analog scale. Experimental pain was induced before and after an unconditioned placebo intervention (placebo TENS) applied for 25 min.
Results: In young individuals, no significant pain reductions were noted, whereas in older individuals, a statistically significant pain reduction was observed after the placebo stimulation (P<0.01). Between-group analyses revealed that placebo analgesia was greater in older individuals (40% pain reduction) compared with young individuals (15% pain reduction) (P<0.05). However, sham TENS increased heat-pain thresholds in the young group (P<0.01), but not in the older group (P=0.43).
Conclusion: Our results indicate that placebo analgesia is influenced by age, with older individuals showing larger placebo analgesia than young adults. Although these results should be confirmed in clinical pain populations, the current observations bear potentially important consequences for the design of future placebo-controlled trials and for healthcare professionals working with elderly patients.