A simple sugar pill. A suggestive thought. A doctor in a white lab coat. These three things have the power to heal as long as the recipient believes they do. Impossible, you say? Research tells us there is real power in the placebo effect. Read on to discover just how it works.
The placebo effect
refers to a patient's healing response to a medical treatment, even if it doesn't involve any type of “real medicine” at all. It's a phenomenon that has been observed for centuries, yet it's still hard to grasp - even in the medical community. But now, rather than the typical “it's all in your head” response, science is taking a closer look at how the placebo effect can actually alleviate pain associated with certain conditions.
Everyone has an individual reaction to pain
. The biggest, burliest men can go weak in the knees at the site of a needle while a brave little 10-year-old shows hardly any response at all. It all depends on how actively the brain participates in the pain process. For example, in some instances, negative auto-suggestions such as those experienced by hypochondriacs
can activate certain areas of the brain that cause pain, even when there isn't a medical condition causing it.
Similarly, it is sometimes possible to lessen real pain by positive auto-suggestions. This is what the placebo effect is all about. It works by activating the part of the brain that interferes with pain signals.
Numerous studies have been conducted testing the validity of the placebo effect. The most common test involves replacing medication with a “sugar pill” that has no medicinal value at all. Up to one-third of the people receiving the placebo show the same type of clinical responses as those receiving the actual medication. In other words, simply believing that a medicine will work is enough to see therapeutic improvement.
For years scientists believed the placebo effect only worked if the patient was unaware they were receiving the placebo. Interestingly enough, a study conducted at Harvard University showed the placebo response occurs even when the patient knows they're not getting real medicine.
The study observed 80 people with irritable bowel syndrome
(IBS). They were separated into two groups. The first group received no medication, but was closely observed by a medical team. The second group received the same medical attention but received a placebo. However, the doctors made sure the patients knew they weren't getting “real medicine” but it could possibly reduce painful symptoms by encouraging self-healing through the power of thought.
Amazingly enough, 59% of the placebo patients reported feeling better after a three week treatment. Only 35% of the patients who didn't receive a pill said they felt better.
So, what does all this mean? Obviously, the placebo effect doesn't relieve all pain associated with all illnesses. However, the power of auto-suggestion makes it possible to alleviate the painful conditions associated with certain chronic conditions and can be an integral part of the healing process.