How the Placebo Effect Works
When patients are given what they perceive to be a medical treatment, many of them will still show signs of improvement; this subsequent improvement is known as the placebo effect. The reason why people report feeling better after a false treatment is thought to be because they have an expectation that treatment will work. As a result, the mind convinces the body it is better and healing takes place.
During World War II, an Army nurse was caring for a wounded soldier; however, the medical ward had run out of morphine, a powerful painkiller. Undaunted by the lack of medication, the nurse reassured the soldier he was receiving morphine, but instead she injected him with saline. Remarkably, the soldier began feeling better and did not go into shock as was expected. Henry Beecher, a doctor who witnessed this event, came home from the war effort and began testing the placebo effect in private practice.
The following 3 minute-video was created by Daniel Keogh, aka @professorfunk and it nicely lays out the "Strange Powers of the Placebo Effect".
more cartoons below
Now you've all heard of the placebo effect before, when something with no known therapeutic value can actually make people feel better. It's a great trick our minds play on us, that by believing and expecting something to work, it actually does. But what's weird is that the strength of the effect can differ for some really strange reasons. For example, the same placebo can treat pain half as well as aspirin, while at the same time treating pain half as well as morphine. Morphine's a much more powerful pain killer, but a placebo is half as effective as both?
Saying a placebo will reduce pain, reduces pain. But saying that the same placebo will increase pain, increases pain. Believing that a placebo will make you feel better, will make you feel better. Believing that it won't has the opposite effect.
Now, placebos aren't just pills. They can be creams, injections, surgeries, or drinks. You can even get placebo buttons. They don't actually do anything, but they sure as hell make you feel like you're in control. But not all placebos are equal. The effect of the placebo is bigger when the pill itself is bigger, or if you have two instead of one, or two once a day instead of one twice a day. And a capsule will usually beat a pill, and a syringe will usually beat a capsule. And anything with a big ass science machine can outperform any of them.
A plain pill works worse than a branded one. A discounted pill works worse than a pricey one, and even a pill in a plain box does worse than one that's all shiny and shit. Placebos that are blue work best as downers, and placebos that are red are better as uppers.
Studies have shown that people who take their meds on a regular basis are less likely to die than those that don't, even if those meds are all placebos. You can even get addicted to placebos. In one study, a group of women took placebos for more than five years. Forty percent of them suffered withdrawals afterwards. In fact, the effect of placebos can be so strong that some people want them banned from sports. But, I mean, how would you even test for that?
Placebos don't even seem to work from place to place. For example, in Germany, using a placebo to treat ulcers works better than anywhere else in Europe. But using a placebo that treats hypertension doesn't work nearly as well as it does for its neighbors.
Now, remember that all of this is about comparing things that both have nothing medically effective in them, which goes to show that a placebo isn't about what's in it but about the beliefs that we load onto it. Our minds create the medicine, and that is pretty freaking weird.
In clinical studies, patients who are testing new medications are normally placed into two separate groups: those receiving the actual medication, and those who are given a placebo. None of the participants knows whether they are actually being given the actual drug or a sugar pill.
Even so, some of the people who are given a placebo pill report experiencing side effects similar to the ones felt by patients taking actual medication. This suggests that people who worry about side effects could actually convince themselves that they feel certain symptoms even when they have not actually taken any medication.
The placebo effect can also be felt whenever patients believe they have undergone surgery. In a study conducted by the University of Harvard, several people were led to believe that they had received surgery to treat chest pain. Some of these individuals were simply given anesthesia and then the doctor made a small incision, while others had the entire procedure performed. Of those who only had an incision, 80% reported improvement, while only 40% of those who actually had the surgery performed claimed better health.
It seems the placebo effect has increased in recent years. In many instances, patients in clinical studies who are taking placebo medications show higher levels of improvement than those who are taking the actual drugs. This has caused pharmaceutical companies to discontinue their development of many new drugs because they do not seem to be any more effective than placebos. Some of the medicines that have had production halted include drugs for depression, schizophrenia, Crohn’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and pain medication, to name a few.
Scientists are just beginning to tap into the healing power of the mind. Much more research needs to be done in order to determine how this tool can be used to heal people of major health disorders.