What is a placebo?

A placebo is a medication or procedure prescribed more for the psychological benefit to the patient than for any physiological effect.

Why do Placebos work?

  • No one is exactly sure how placebos work.
  • It is thought that transmitters such as endorphins play a role.
  • Endorphins are the bodies natural pain reliever.
  • Researchers have found that if the release of endorphins are blocked, the placebo effect will also be blocked.
  • Studies have shown that placebos can increase dopamine.
  • Dopamine is a chemical, also known as a feel good hormone.
  • Patients with depression have been shown to exhibit changes in the brain when they are exposed to placebo. 
  • The ability to respond to a placebo may have a genetic component to it. Patients with certain genes that are linked to the release of dopamine were more likely to respond to sham acupuncture than patients with a different variation.
  • This finding may influence how pharmaceutical studies that use placebos are performed.

Beth Israel Deaconess in Boston has performed several placebo studies led by Ted Kaptchuk. One such study was unique in that the patients were told ahead of time that they would  be receiving a placebo. The results showed that 60%  of the participants reported improvement even though they knew they were taking a placebo. According to Harvard Magazine, “The study’s results shocked the investigators themselves: even patients who knew they were taking placebos described real improvement, reporting twice as much symptom relief as the no-treatment group.”

  • Prior studies have shown that placebos can make a differecne is 35% amount of case.
  • Some patients even developed side effects such as sluggishness even though it was a cornstarch pill. 

What do we know about placebos?

  • The brain can influence illness. There have been reports of patients with asthma experiencing an attack when they are shown pictures of a cat or another object that can trigger an attack. 
  • Pharmaceutical companies use placebo to study the effectiveness of a medication. 
  • There are real physiological responses to placebos such as changes in heart rate and blood pressure.
  • Placebo effect started in trials in 1950’s.

Studies with placebos

  • Parkinson’s disease. Some patients were given an expensive drug where others were given a  cheaper drug. Patients thought that the more expensive drugs were more effective even though there were no differences.
  • Knee surgery. A total of 180 patients with osteoarthritis of the knee were randomly assigned to receive arthroscopic surgery or placebo surgery. The study was published in the New England Journal of Medicine  revealed that, “In this controlled trial involving patients with osteoarthritis of the knee, the outcomes after arthroscopic lavage or arthroscopic debridement were no better than those after a placebo procedure.”

Does placebo have a place in medical treatment?

  • The disease itself is the most important consideration.
  • Sham treatments won’t shrink tumors or cure viruses.
  • Placebos have been shown to benefit patients when the brain can influence the disease.

You Are the Placebo: Making Your Mind Matter

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