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A placebo, as most people learned it, is a harmless pill or treatment administered to patients involved in a medical study. The “placebo effect” is the psychological and physical outcome for a patient receiving what’s often referred to as the “sham treatment.”
Doctors have known about the placebo effect for centuries. In 1807, Thomas Jefferson famously referred to it as the “pious fraud”.
The latest research into placebos and painkillers finds that there is more than one measurable type of placebo response. What is even more mind-boggling is some patients who know they’re receiving a placebo can experience a reduction in pain symptoms.
“The placebo effect is the most interesting phenomenon in all of science. It is the precise interface of biology and psychology,” Jeffrey Mogill, a pain researcher at McGill University, said in an interview with Vox.
Researchers believe there might be ways to employ placebos in the fight against the opioid epidemic, a crisis that’s taking the lives of 115 Americans every single day, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Physical pain is inherently subjective, meaning people experience levels of pain at different intensities and have different psychological responses to it.
This is one of the reasons placebos are useful in pain management. A physician’s simple suggestion that taking a placebo will work kicks off the psychological and physical process of pain relief.
- It’s this crossroads, where the psychological and biological mechanisms of the mind and body meet, that some experts believe placebos can help mitigate the opioid epidemic.
“As the development of novel, non-addictive pain management drugs accelerates, we should the consider potential role of placebos in addressing the opioid epidemic,” Michael H. Bernstein, a PhD at Brown University’s School of Public Health, Center for Alcohol and Addiction Studies, in Providence, Rhode Island, wrote in a letter to the editor. “While this may sound more like quackery than good medicine, it is actually based on an emerging field of placebo research. If placebos can reduce pain safely and effectively, then they should be tested as an adjunct to, or in substitute for, opioids.”
Volumes of scientific research on the placebo effect identify several key reasons why patients see an improvement of their symptoms from a pill or treatment that lacks any real medicine. These include some of the following:
- Expectations are powerful. Most patients believe, or at least hope, that a medication will remove or decrease their pain. As a result, the sheer knowledge that they’re receiving treatment causes a biological response, even with a placebo treatment
- Empathy and environment also increase a positive placebo effect. One study found that patients who were unaware that they were receiving treatment experienced fewer benefits than patients who interacted with their nurse or physician as they received treatment. The effect grows even more powerful when the health care professional listens to and empathizes with their patient
- Social conditioning is yet another powerful tool associated with the placebo effect. Most people associate taking a pill with getting better. So when physicians prescribe a placebo, the brain is conditioned to release chemicals to start the process of healing and pain relief
“Placebo is not magic,” Alia Crum, who studies the placebo effect at the Stanford Mind and Body Lab, said in an interview with Time. “We view placebo effect as the product of your body’s ability to heal, which is activated by our mind-sets and expectations to heal, and shaped by medical rituals, branding of drugs and the words doctors say.”
(image courtesy of NIH.gov)