Expectation can significantly modulate pain and treatment effects. This study aims to investigate if boosting patients' expectancy can enhance the treatment of knee osteoarthritis (KOA), and its underlying brain mechanism.
Seventy-four KOA patients were recruited and randomized to three groups: boosted acupuncture (with a manipulation to enhance expectation), standard acupuncture, or treatment as usual (TAU). Each patient underwent six treatments before being debriefed, and four additional treatments after being debriefed. The fMRI scans were applied during the first and sixth treatment sessions.
We found significantly decreased knee pain in the boosted acupuncture group compared to the standard acupuncture or TAU groups after both six and ten treatments. Resting state functional connectivity (rsFC) analyses using the nucleus accumbens (NAc) as the seed showed rsFC increases between the NAc and the medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC)/rostral anterior cingulate cortex (rACC) and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex in the boosted group as compared to the standard acupuncture group after multiple treatments. Expectancy scores after the first treatment were significantly associated with increased NAc-rACC/MPFC rsFC and decreased knee pain following treatment.
Our study provides a novel method and mechanism for boosting the treatment of pain in patients with KOA. Our findings may shed light on enhancing outcomes of pharmacological and integrative medicines in clinical settings.