New research has found that the pain of a broken heart may be real, but thankfully for those unlucky in love, it can be eased by the placebo effect.
Carried out by a team from the University of Colorado Boulder, the researchers recruited 40 volunteers who had experienced an "unwanted romantic breakup" in the past six months.
Although previous studies have shown that placebos — treatments with no active ingredients — can ease pain in a variety of conditions, including depression, the new study is the first to measure the effect of a placebo on emotional pain caused by a heartbreak.
Participants were asked to bring photos of their ex and of a good friend the same gender as them to a brain-imaging lab, where they entered a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine to track brain activity before being shown images of their ex and asked to recall the breakup.
They were next shown images of their friend, and then subjected to physical pain, which involved a hot stimulus on their left forearm.
Results showed that although not identical, the brain regions activated during physical and emotional pain were similar, which senior author Tor Wager believes sends an important message to the broken-hearted: "Know that your pain is real — neuro-chemically real."
Outside of the fMRI machines participants received a nasal spray, with half being told that it was a "powerful analgesic effective in reducing emotional pain," and the other half that it was a simple saline solution.
Back inside the machine, participants were exposed to the same stimuli.
However, this time the results were different.
Not only did the placebo group, who believed the spray would ease heartache, feel less physical and emotional pain, but their brains actually responded differently when shown the photo of an ex.
The team found that activity in the brain's dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, an area involved with modulating emotions, increased sharply, while areas across the brain associated with rejection showed less activity.
There was also increased activity in an area of the midbrain called the periaqueductal gray (PAG) which is important in modulating levels of the brain's pain-killing chemicals, opioids, and feel-good neurotransmitters like dopamine, leading the participants to feel better after they had taken the placebo.
"Breaking up with a partner is one of the most emotionally negative experiences a person can have."
"Breaking up with a partner is one of the most emotionally negative experiences a person can have, and it can be an important trigger for developing psychological problems," said first author Leonie Koban, who pointed out that social pain such as heartbreak is associated with a 20-fold higher risk of developing depression in the coming year.
The team suggest that just doing something you believe will help you get over your ex can be powerful enough to influence brain regions associated with emotional pain and help you feel better.
"Just the fact that you are doing something for yourself and engaging in something that gives you hope may have an impact," said Wager. "In some cases, the actual chemical in the drug may matter less than we once thought."