So in the first part I gave some examples of what placebo is and how effective it can be. In this second part I will give one more example so that people really understand and see the power and the ¨magic¨ behind placebo.
I´ll start by mentioning a study that Dr. Tor Wager in Bolder Colorado did. He wanted to see if ¨placebo¨ can influence the feeling of pain. I´ve already mentioned a couple of times that pain is a subjective feeling and it can vary depending and a lot of factors, like stress, anxiety, beliefs, and a thousand other things (pain part 1). Anyway, what he did that was new was that he scanned people as they were getting their placebo to see what the brain was doing, and the results were amazing. First, let me explain how the study went. He got some volunteers, and on one part of their arm he put a moisturizing cream and told them what it was, this would be the ¨control group¨. In another spot on their arm he put a local anesthetic and also told them what it was. Then on a different part of the arm he put the same moisturizing cream as before but told patients that this was also a local anesthetic. After this was done he put them under a scan and did a thermo pain test on them. The results, as you can imagine, were that the placebo cream was as effective (sometimes even more) than the local anesthetic. But what was really amazing is that the brain (they saw this on the scan), was releasing endogenous opioid in the placebo group, meaning it was releasing its own morphine!! Thanks to this study we can now begin to understand how a placebo works….. it works because placebo relies on chemicals, but those chemicals, unlike ¨real medicine¨, are being produced in the brain!!
This doesn´t mean that placebo works for everything, it sure won´t fix a broken leg or help to reduce a tumor, but in the area where it seems effective scientists are trying to figure out how to make the most of it. And what they have seen is that for a placebo to work we usually need to belief it´s real. In other words, it´s about expectations. That is why the size and shape of a pill can influence how a placebo works. It´s also why a capsule is more effective than a tablet, why a large capsule is more effective than a small tablet, why expensive medication is more effective than cheap medication, why color makes a difference; red pills are more effective for treating pain and blue pills are more effective for treating anxiety, unless of course you are a male italian (blue is the color of the national football team, and a symbol of immense excitement, passion and heart ache) (2-5).
So does this mean that if something is as good as placebo it should be allowed to be used as medicine? Well, in my opinion not really. In my opinion we should use medicine that has been proven to be more effective than placebo in clinical control studies. Meaning medication that no matter what the expectation of the patient is will work. But I do believe that once this medication has been proven to be effective, we should try to make use of the placebo effect, as it will help the real medication even more.
One last thing quick thing that a lot of people might not know. Any medication that comes out onto the market must have been proven to be more effective than placebo. If it is not more effective than placebo then that medication (pill, capsule), is not allowed to go onto the market.
Hoped you enjoyed!! Till next time
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- de Craen AJ, Roos PJ, Leonard de Vries A, Kleijnen J (1996). “Effect of colour of drugs: systematic review of perceived effect of drugs and of their effectiveness. BMJ 313 (7072): 1624–6. .
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- Dolinska B (1999). “Empirical investigation into placebo effectiveness”. Ir J Psych Med 16 (2): 57–58.
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