Do you know what the Placebo Effect is? There’s lot of information out there. For example, here’s what WebMD says about it. Here’s my definition of it.
In general, it’s when someone is told they are given a medication (or procedure) that will work but instead are given a sugar pill or otherwise “deceived” into believing they’ve gotten the prescribed treatment. It is often used in clinical trials for drugs to establish the baseline of side effects. The amazing part is that it shows the power of the mind to influence our healing ability.
The amazing thing that captured my attention a few months ago is that this can work not only for medication but also for surgery. (Maybe this is the key to saving money in the US healthcare system.) This was tested in the case of knee surgery in a trial that was published several years ago. This article also points out another trial on patients with Parkinson’s. The reality appears to be that this is happening in trials but also in real life according to an article in American Medical News (see quote below).
Nearly half of physicians use placebos in clinical care, and only 4% tell their patients the truth about it, according to a survey of Chicago academic physicians that was published this month in the Journal of General Internal Medicine.
This begs all types of questions about who will respond to placebos and when or if it’s ok to use them with patients.
The Saturday Evening Post just published an article on this topic. They touch on a few of the same studies I’ve looked at, but they also point out several new things that I put below – conditioned response and ritual. They also share a video on the placebo effect.
Conditioned responses are a third way the placebo response works. In one elegant experiment demonstrating this phenomenon, scientists showed 40 volunteers two male faces on a computer screen for 0.1 second. When the volunteers looked at one face, they got a mild burn on their forearm; when they looked at the other, they got a more painful burn. The volunteers became as conditioned as Pavlov’s dogs. In the next round when they saw the high-pain face and felt a burn, they rated it as more painful than when they saw the low-pain face and felt a burn—even though the applied heat was identical the second time around.
The perception of pain, says Ted Kaptchuk of Harvard Medical School, who helped lead the 2012 study, depends on “what the nonconscious mind anticipates despite any conscious thoughts.”
The placebo effect doesn’t even depend on deception. It can kick in even when people are told they are receiving an inactive drug. For instance, in a 2010 study led by Harvard’s Kaptchuk, scientists recruited 80 people with irritable bowel syndrome, or IBS, and gave half no treatment and half what they were told were “placebo pills made of an inert substance, like sugar pills, that have been shown in clinical studies to produce significant improvement in IBS symptoms through mind-body, self-healing processes.” It was full disclosure. Even without the deception, the placebo-takers’ IBS symptoms improved over the course of three weeks. That response suggests another avenue for the placebo response: ritual.
The author (Sharon Begley) asks the key question which is how does this placebo effect play out in the 21st century. With all this technology that we have and the physician shortage, is there a greater opportunity here? Can we tap into this in a positive way? She also points out how doctors are using other techniques such as relaxation therapy to address the power of the mind.