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Papers of the Week

Papers: 4 May 2024 - 10 May 2024

2024 May 02



Editor's Pick

The downside to choice: instrumental control increases conditioned nocebo hyperalgesia.


Tang B, Livesey E, Colagiuri B


Nocebo hyperalgesia is a pervasive problem in which the treatment context triggers negative expectations that exacerbate pain. Thus, developing ethical strategies to mitigate nocebo hyperalgesia is crucial. Emerging research suggests that choice has the capacity to reduce nocebo side effects, but choice effects on nocebo hyperalgesia have not been explored. This study investigated the impact of choice on conditioned nocebo hyperalgesia using a well-established electrocutaneous pain paradigm where increases in noxious stimulation were surreptitiously paired with the activation of a sham device. In study 1, healthy volunteers (N = 104) were randomised to choice over (nocebo) treatment administration, nocebo administration without choice, or a natural history control group. Nocebo hyperalgesia was greater for those with choice than no choice, suggesting that choice increased rather than diminished nocebo hyperalgesia. Study 2 tested whether providing positive information about the benefits of choice in coping with pain could counteract heightened nocebo hyperalgesia caused by choice. A different sample of healthy adults (N = 137) were randomised to receive nocebo treatment with choice and positive choice information, choice only, or no choice. The positive choice information failed to attenuate the effect of choice on nocebo hyperalgesia. The current results suggest that, rather than decreasing nocebo hyperalgesia, treatment choice may exacerbate pain outcomes when a painful procedure is repeatedly administered. As such, using choice as a strategy to mitigate nocebo outcomes should be treated with caution.