By definition, a placebo is an inert substance that has no effect on your body. In medical research, placebos (such as sugar pills) are used as controls against which the effects of drugs are measured. However, the placebo-effect, in which a patient believes he or she is getting an actual drug and subsequently feels better despite receiving no “active” treatment at all, has become a well-recognized phenomenon.
Researchers have found that placebos can work just as well as potent drugs, and studies into the placebo effect have also shown that many conventional treatments “work” because of the placebo effect and little else. What’s more, recent investigations reveal the placebo effect is growing in potency — but only among Americans! This is an intriguing mystery that as of yet has no solid explanation, and it’s having a dramatic impact on the development of new painkillers.
As recently reported by Scientific American and Forbes, drug companies are finding it increasingly difficult to get pain-reducing drugs through clinical trials, but not because the drugs are necessarily getting worse. Previous research has noted that the placebo response appears to be increasing in trials involving antidepressants and antipsychotics. Here, the placebo effect is rising across the world, not just in the US, which adds another layer to the mystery. It was such findings that prompted researchers to investigate the strength of the placebo response in painkiller trials, because over the past decade more than 90 percent of drugs aimed at chronic pain have failed to show efficacy in clinical trials, suggesting something odd might be afoot.
The jury is still out on the exact mechanisms that make the placebo effect so effective. It does appear that simply going through the ritual of treatment is enough to cause a beneficial response in many cases. Regardless of the mechanism, studies show that if you think you’re receiving a treatment, and you expect that treatment to work, it often will. Research, has also shown that your emotions and/or expectations can significantly influence the perceived intensity of pain. Positive expectations and emotions tend to minimize pain, while negative emotions such as fear tend to exacerbate it. This is an aspect of pain that has been exploited by torturers throughout human history.
There’s no denying that the placebo effect is real, and this is actually good news. It reveals you hold a great deal of power of healing within yourself — a power that can be tapped through belief and positive expectations. In my view, accepting the placebo effect, and recognizing this inherent self-healing power of the mind, can go a long way toward improving health care.This suggests doctors and hospitals could potentially start seeing better results simply by taking the time to show they care; to act in a personalized and compassionate manner. In essence, by improving the relationship between patient and care giver, many treatments might become more effective in response to the placebo effect of feeling supported and believing you can and will get better.