There is a lot of debate surrounding the use of Placebos to treat patients. Some people think that as long as the patients well being is improved, then the practice has achieved its purpose; others think that it is deceitful, unethical and illegal. But as with all with all things man-made, the question and answer often lays with the individual experience it.
What is the Placebo Effect?
To fully understand this phenomenon, we need to first understand what a ‘Placebo’ is.
Placebo, which is pronounced ‘pluh-see-bow’, comes from Latin meaning ‘I will please’ is a ‘medicine look-alike’. This is a substance that looks just like your regular pill but is in fact not medicine at all. Often Placebos are sugar based substances, hence the associated name ‘sugar pills’.
In a typical placebo setting, the recipient does not know that they are getting a placebo. Although this form of treatment is often associated with pills, it can take many forms (injections, procedures and liquids).
Placebos do not have any active ingredients that directly affect whatever illness they are being prescribed for, but they look just like the real thing and often have the same therapeutic effects.
The Placebo Effect
To understand the Placebo effect fully, you need to be tuned in to how much effect the mind has on the human body. When a patient goes to see their doctor, they trust that their doctor will figure out what is ailing them and prescribe the right medication to alleviate and bring to a halt the symptoms that are affecting them. Once they start taking their medication, many of these patients begin feeling better and most of their symptoms tend to disappear. This is mostly due to the fact that their prescribed medication has active ingredients that work towards relieving those symptoms.
But as much as real medication may be effective, sometime they just don’t work. Not because they are not functional or because they are not the right kind of medication, but because the recipient refuses to accept that they may actually work. It is a murky line between actual science and belief. This is where the placebo effect comes in to play.
The placebo effect takes place when what the patient expects to happen happens. 1 out of every 3 people who receive placebos as part of their treatment actually report improvements in their symptoms and sometimes even full recovery. This is credited to the body’s self healing powers and the minds self fulfilling prophecies. Because the recipient expected the drugs to work, their bodies comply with this and begin to self-heal. That is the power of the placebo effect.
But, of course, with such great power comes a flip side of the very same coin. Just as the hopeful recipient expects to get better and does those who expect that their medicine will not work often end up in a worse state. This is true for real medicine as well. As we all know, most medicines have side effects. If a placebo recipient expects their medication to affect them adversely, then most of the time it will. This effect is referred to as the ‘Nocebo Effect‘.
How the placebo effect works
It is not fully understood how the placebo effect works but researchers tend to agree that it has a lot to do with the connection between our minds and our bodies. But it is not all just fictitious assumptions. There have been studies which showed actual brain activity when placebos were administered to the subject in question.
It is also believed that it has a lot to do with the release of endorphins and other self serving hormones that make this effect so powerful. Especially in ‘pain-relief’ placebos.
However, the placebo effect is mainly attributed to what is referred to as the ‘expectation effect’. This is to say that the patient will experience whatever it is they expect to experience once they take the drug. It is akin to ‘Faith’. If you expect to get better then you will get better and vice versa. This is true even in real medicine and so is the opposite. If a patient who takes real medicine does not expect to get better, more often than not they won’t.
But just because a patient gets better when they take placebos does not mean that their symptoms were not real. Placebos often change a person’s perception. If you are taking stress relief medicine and you get a placebo instead, just because your stress will be relieved does not mean you were not actually stressed. It means that your perception of the situation has changed, which leads to the drop in stress hormones and thus your stress levels.