Medicines aren’t too exciting, especially when we think of the negative side effects they may cause.
But what if we could swap them with something else that gives us the same benefits but without the side effects?
In psychology, this sweet spot may be found with placebos through what is known as a placebo effect.
Placebos are dummy medicines that may give almost the same health benefits as real medicines even though they have no active ingredients.
They could be pills or capsules that contain nothing more than sugar, saline, or starch.
The patient is led to believe that they have been given the real medicine. It is in effect a fake treatment but it produces a placebo effect that appears to work in some people.
When a person takes the pill in the belief that it will work, he may feel better.
This may work along with the body’s own pain relief abilities. The placebo may also mimic the side effects of the real medicine.
In psychology, placebos are thought of as a psychological remedy for illnesses of the body. It is believed that the placebo works because the patient believes the treatment is real.
However, it is not the placebo that gives relief but the response of the patient. It’s the mind playing tricks.
Placebos are important to researchers who are studying the effectiveness of a new drug.
Since some relief from illness is caused by a person’s mind, this can distort or mask the observed effect of the drug.
So, it’s important to eliminate the effect of a placebo in a study.
To do this, researchers usually do a randomized double-blind study. This is where we have two groups, one of which is given a placebo and the other the real medicine.
Both the researchers and the participants do not know who got a placebo or who got the true treatment. If any benefits are noticed, researchers will know if it came from the medicine or the placebo.
Today placebos are usually reserved for research because prescribing them to patients raises ethical controversies.
While they don’t cure the underlying disease, they can relieve symptoms such as pain, anxiety, or insomnia.
Here are 8 examples of placebo in psychology and in real life in general.
1. Sleep placebo
Research has shown that there is a link between sleep and brain performance.
In this case, what someone thinks about his sleep quality will affect his cognitive capacities.
For example, if he believes that he had poor sleep, his cognitive performance will be poor and vice versa.
This is an example of a placebo effect where the person’s expectations are what produces the results
2. Parkinson’s disease
Parkinson’s disease is an incurable brain disease in which patients’ brains show a deficiency of dopamine.
Studies show that when patients are given placebos, it causes the release of dopamine in the brain region called the striatum.
This improves nerve signaling which can give an improvement of up to 20%.
This shows a placebo effect that helps to relieve some of the symptoms of PD patients.
Cancer survivors usually suffer from cancer-related fatigue.
Studies have shown placebo effects among these patients. For example, in one study, they reported improvement after a three-week period of medication with a placebo.
Clearly, the patient’s expectations were what were inducing the relief of the symptom showing a placebo effect
4. Irritable bowel syndrome
This disease, which is marked with a bellyache, constipation, and diarrhea, tends to be increasingly common, driving researchers to search for cures.
In one study, patients with moderate and severe IBS were given placebos.
Amazingly, patients reported improvements in their symptoms despite the placebos being open labels.
This means they were made aware that the medicines they were taking were placebo and not real medicine.
Despite this, they got better. The benefits were even stronger when patients also received the doctor’s supportive care
5. Pain management
The best-known area where placebos perform best is found in pain relief. This is another area where open-label placebos have been used for treatment.
Studies have shown that placebos, including open-label ones, can be effective in relieving various pains such as chronic lower back pain.
In this case, the placebo was a saline injection that patients received in their lower backs.
Patients suffering from major depression disorder have shown improvements from placebos.
For example, one study that gave participants placebo pills labeled as antidepressants found that they had reduced depression.
From brain PET scans that were done, it was found that both those on placebos and fluoxetine (real medicine) had increased glucose metabolism in the regions of the brain that affect mood.
As a result, both patients had some relief although the placebo patients had less effectiveness
7. Sham surgeries
Sometimes researchers can carry out fake surgeries in clinical trials. This is where patients are taken through a surgical process in which nothing is actually done in the operating theatre.
The patient is left believing that he has undergone real surgery, after undergoing fasting, anesthetization, and surgical incisions.
However, the procedure being studied is not done. If anesthesia is not given, the patient may be shown a video with a different patient.
8. Fake acupuncture
Placebo or sham acupuncture is sometimes used in clinical trials to enhance placebo effects.
In real acupuncture, needles are inserted in various points of the body in the belief that it relieves pain and other illnesses.
When two groups of patients were given real medicine and sham acupuncture treatments, they both surprisingly showed improvements in symptoms.
This shows a placebo effect at work where the acupuncture patients got better in the false belief that acupuncture was performed on them.
In the world of placebos, fakes aren’t really scams. They actually do work that has earned them a respectable place in science.
Still, the mystery lingers. Researchers are left scratching their heads.
With such strange powers, what more surprises does the brain hold and how can we enlist it for more mind-blowing things?