How do placebos work?
For as long as medicine has existed doctors and healers have known that reassurance and a good bedside / surgery manner can contribute significantly to the healing process. Up until the late 1800s doctors regularly gave placebo treatments to patients - it stopped abruptly then, so the story goes, because a fully recovered female patient was given an injection of water, not morphine as she was led to believe. Subsequently, the deception was uncovered and the patient successfully sued the doctor for the cost of the treatment. While legal and economic and possibly ethical pressures put a stop to the practice of prescribing placebo remedies directly to patients the use of placebos in approved clinical trials continues today (and is often a licencing requirement) with sometimes surprising results.
Science acknowledges the placebo effect, but has yet to fully account for how it works. In 2005 a study by the Neuropsychiatric Institute - University of Claifornia1 detected distinct changes in the brain when a placebo was being administered to a patient - suggesting that the preparation, ritual and general desire to get better helps to promote the body’s own healing processes.
In essence a placebo works like a catalyst that can encourage a patient’s internal healing mechanism or sense of well-being to engage using the power of suggestion. Surprisingly, you will be pleased to hear, there are studies that indicate that the ‘placebo effect’ can be present even when the patient knows they are receiving a placebo treatment. What that means is, there does not have to be any deception for the ‘placebo effect’ to be present.
I addition to the act of taking a placebo, creating the right conditions to benefit from the 'placebo effect' is as important as the placebo itself.
Creating the best environment to obtain the most benefit from the placebo effect
Placebos can be used whenever the patient feels the need, or when all else has failed. As we have discussed placebos stimulate the body’s healing processes to maintain wellbeing – sometimes apparently delivering what seem like the most unlikely positive results. A genuine desire to set yourself on the pathway to recovery deliver the conditions for the placebo effect to work. You can help to create the optimal conditions for the placebo effect by recalling positive experiences, or by reviewing the many reasons to be grateful for your life. You may choose to create your own ritual, meditations on visualisations or a written statement of your desire to become well. You may choose to gain encouragement from books, art, music, conversations or the Internet.
Extract from - Harvard Health News - April 2012
We're a long way from fully understanding the placebo effect. But here are some things you can do (and think), based on what researchers have discovered so far:
Make sure you're getting the support you need from your doctor. Placebo effect research has shown how important a supportive doctor-patient relationship can be. If you're not getting the support and attention you need, consider switching doctors.
Recognize that it might be "in your head" — but there's nothing wrong with that. Behind the subjective experience of feeling better (and worse) are objective changes in brain chemistry that we've only started to understand.
Find treatments you can believe in… Expectations that an intervention will have some benefit increase the chances that it will.
…but keep your healthy skepticism. Quacks and charlatans can exploit the placebo effect to peddle treatments that are useless, and even harmful, if for no other reason than they keep people from getting treatment that is directly effective.Putting the placebo effect to work - Harvard Health News - April 2012