Pre-exposure, but not overshadowing, inhibits nocebo hyperalgesia.

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Nocebo hyperalgesia is a pervasive problem that significantly adds to the burden of pain. Conditioning is a key mechanism of nocebo hyperalgesia and recent evidence indicates that, once established, nocebo hyperalgesia is resistant to extinction. This means that preventive strategies are critical. We therefore tested whether two novel strategies – overshadowing (Experiment 1) and pre-exposure (Experiment 2) – could inhibit conditioned nocebo hyperalgesia. Overshadowing involves introducing additional cues during conditioning that should compete with and overshadow learning about the target nocebo cue. Pre-exposure involves pre-exposing the target nocebo cue in the absence of pain, which should diminish its ability to become associated with pain later. In both studies, healthy volunteers (N=141) received exposure to a series of electrocutaneous pain stimuli with and without a sham electrode ‘activated’, which they were led to believe was a genuine hyperalgesic treatment. Nocebo conditioning was achieved by pairing sham activation with high pain prior to testing at equivalent pain intensity. In both studies, standard nocebo conditioning led to clear nocebo hyperalgesia relative to natural history controls. In Experiment 1, there was no evidence that overshadowing attenuated nocebo hyperalgesia. Importantly, however, Experiment 2 found that pre-exposure successfully attenuated nocebo hyperalgesia with post hoc analysis suggesting that this effect was dose-dependent. These findings provide novel evidence that pre-exposure, but not overshadowing, could be a cheap and effective way for mitigating the substantial harm caused by conditioned nocebo hyperalgesia in clinical settings. PERSPECTIVE: Nocebo hyperalgesia causes substantial patient burden with few preventive options available. Our study found novel evidence that pre-exposing treatment cues without pain, but not overshadowing them with other cues, has the capacity to inhibit conditioned nocebo hyperalgesia. Pre-exposure may therefore be an effective preventive strategy to combat nocebo hyperalgesia.

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Authors: B Colagiuri, J Park, K Barnes, L Sharpe, R A Boakes, L Colloca, E J Livesey