Placebo is Latin for “I shall please.” Which is a good way of describing how the placebo effect works: a doctor offers a patient a “powerful” albeit fake drug with the assurance that it will relieve the patient’s symptoms. And then it does.
It’s all in our heads, right? Wrong.
Recently, scientists have noticed that sometimes the fake treatments work even better that the real ones.
- Placebos knocked out lower back pain just as powerfully as acetaminophen did in a 2014 trial.
- In 2010, a review in the Journal of the AMA found that placebos were equally effective as widely prescribed antidepressants for many less-severe cases of depression.
- That same year, nearly 60% of people with irritable bowel syndrome got better when taking a placebo even when they were told they’d be getting a fake.
- Likewise, Parkinson’s patients moved much better when they were told that doctors had turned on a pacemaker-like implant in their brains, which blocks tremors, than when it was turned on covertly.
- The effects reach even as far as surgery. A study in the New England Journal of Medicine found that patients who had a fake knee surgery for osteoarthritis – they simply made and incision and closed it up – improved as much as those who had the real deal.
Now scientists are finding evidence that the placebo effect actually is physical – evidently it’s not “all in our head.” Brain scans indicate that when you’re in pain, placebos can trigger a release of natural pain killers and calms your heart rate which in turn leads to better moods, less stress and improved sleep quality – all things that help you heal.
Doctors are prohibited from prescribing a dummy pill for ethical reasons, but even saying, “There’s no evidence that this supplement works, but I have patients who’ve found it to be helpful,” helps you get your mind in the game.
How to create your own placebo
Find a doctor who really cares. Verbal and nonverbal reassurance and TLC matter. New research shows that the more your doctor believes a treatment will work, the more it boosts your expectations of it working.
- Expand your ability to believe & expect. Tally up little things that help you feel you’re in good hands.
- Degrees on the wall, clean modern office, a friendly staff – starched white coats are always a plus. They’re experts and know what they are doing.
- Expect to get better. Among the most provocative findings: New research suggests that once Alzheimer’s disease robs someone of the ability to expect that a proven painkiller will help them, it doesn’t work nearly as well.
Your optimism may determine how well a treatment works. Remind yourself of high success rates. Placebos trigger the relaxation response, so anything you can do to relax: meditate, listen to music, take a bath, maybe even have sex – may help start your body’s healing mechanisms.
No one is claiming placebos can cure cancer or Alzheimer’s yet, but it makes sense to plug into the potential of what’s already inside you. Be well.
If this sounds like the type of conversation you would like to join into, and you live in the greater Portland metropolitan area, come on over to a heartspark Connections. Consider yourself personally invited!