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Inducing Expectations for Health: Effects of Verbal Suggestion and Imagery on Pain, Itch, and Fatigue as Indicators of Physical Sensitivity

posted on 08.10.2015 by Kaya J. Peerdeman, Antoinette I. M. van Laarhoven, A. Rogier T. Donders, Maria T. E. Hopman, Madelon L. Peters, Andrea W. M. Evers

Research into placebo effects has convincingly shown that inducing positive outcome expectations can reduce pain and other physical sensations. However, the comparative effects of different expectation inductions, such as verbal suggestion or mental imagery, and their generic effects on physical sensitivity, to different sensations such as pain, itch, and fatigue, are still largely unknown. In the current study, we assessed the individual and combined effects of verbal suggestion and imagery on pain, itch, and fatigue as indicators of physical sensitivity in a randomized study design. Healthy participants (n = 116) were given an inert (placebo) capsule that was said to be effective for reducing physical sensitivity in either the majority (positive verbal suggestion) or the minority (control verbal suggestion) of users. Subsequently, they imagined either their best possible health (positive imagery) or a typical day (control imagery). Sensitivity to pain, itch, and fatigue was tested using a cold pressor test, histamine iontophoresis, and a bicycle test, respectively. Heart rate and skin conductance were recorded continuously. Results showed that positive verbal suggestion and imagery successfully induced positive expectations, but they did not affect physical sensitivity, as indicated by sensitivity to pain, itch, or fatigue, or concurrent physiological responses. These results could indicate that the specificity and concreteness of expectation inductions might be important for their applicability in the treatment of physical symptoms.

Trial Registration

Nederlands Trial Register NTR3641