Placebo, the Latin word meaning “to please”, refers to pain relief and healing of health complaints that happens due to a persons’ belief. This belief can stem from a sham treatment, a psychological or spiritual change, or due to a suggestion from a respected source, whether medical doctor or shaman.
Many have heard of the little white sugar pill being prescribed which then stops Aunt Hattie’s headaches. From this we can think she was imagining the headaches and just needed attention and that’s all there is to it. Science now shows that our confidence the pill will help actually turns on our “internal pharmacy”, releasing opioids for pain relief, and other hormones and neurotransmitters that help balance body processes.
You have to have an expectation this healing change will happen. For instance, previously helping a headache by taking an aspirin fired a pathway in brain and spinal cord areas that reduced pain. This pathway is found to be duplicated when the placebo is then taken. We are also socially conditioned to honor the white coats, stethoscopes, and high tech equipment common today, all of which is part of what is called “the theater of medicine.” These trappings are part of our shared social views, and increases confidence in the treatment. Medical research now feels surgery may be the main driver of the placebo response in our current healthcare approaches.
The power of placebo has been documented in numerous studies, sometimes with remarkable results. In a study on anti-depressants, a woman participant attempted to commit suicide by overdosing on her trial medication. Even though she was in the placebo side of the study and the pills she was taking were actually dummies, she suffered a near fatal drop in blood pressure. In another, a Parkinson’s patient had a very beneficial response to deep brain stimulation when others in the study did not. This patient was then found to have been in the placebo wing of the trial and had never had the brain stimulation. These amazing responses happen even when patients are told they will receive a placebo, and are even reminded later that it was.
Like all thing in life, the placebo has its opposite, the nocebo – an unwanted or unpleasant health state created again by a sham treatment, a patients’ negative expectation or by negative suggestions from healthcare providers, the media, or others. Take care who you listen to. Most media is run on pharmaceutical ad money, so you will continue to see a barrage of drug ads that will try to convince you can’t heal on your own. Don’t believe it!