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Why you need to know about the placebo effect

Posted on: August 12th, 2015

Why it’s important to know about the placebo effect and how you can use it to decrease your pain and increase your bodies ability to heal

Also called the placebo response, this remarkable phenomenon in which a placebo — a fake treatment, an inactive substance like sugar, distilled water, or saline solution — can sometimes improve a patient’s condition simply because the person has the expectation that it will be helpful. Expectation to experience something plays a potent role in the placebo effect.

The more a person believes they are going to benefit from a treatment, the more likely it is that they will experience a benefit.

How many times were you told as a child that if you worry too much it will make you sick? Our minds are incredibly powerful and our beliefs have the ability to either heal or make us sick.

An interesting study done at Harvard Medical School by Ted Kaptchuk to test the results of a placebo took place in early 2000 in a collaboration with gastroenterologists studying irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), a chronic gastrointestinal disorder accompanied by pain and constipation. The experiment split 262 adults with IBS into three groups: a no-treatment control group, told they were on a waiting list for treatment; a second group who received sham acupuncture without much interaction with the practitioner; and a third group who received sham acupuncture with great attention lavished upon them—at least 20 minutes of what Kaptchuk describes as “very schmaltzy” care (“I’m so glad to meet you”; “I know how difficult this is for you”; “This treatment has excellent results”). Practitioners were also required to touch the hands or shoulders of members of the third group and spend at least 20 seconds lost in thoughtful silence.

What he found was inspiring but not surprising: the patients who experienced the greatest relief were those who received the most care. But in an age of rushed doctor’s visits and packed waiting rooms, it was the first study to show a “dose-dependent response” for a placebo: the more care people got—even if it was fake—the better they tended to fare.

The Talmud, the ancient compendium of rabbinical thought, states that: “Where there is hope, there is life.” And hope is positive expectation, by another name. The scientific study of the placebo effect is usually dated to the pioneering paper published in 1955 on “The Powerful Placebo” by the anesthesiologist Henry K. Beecher (1904-1976). Beecher concluded that, across the 26 studies he analyzed, an average of 32% of patients responded to placebo. 

What we can learn from this

The placebo effect is part of the human potential to react positively to a healer. A patient’s distress may be relieved by something for which there is no medical basis. A familiar example is where we ‘kiss it better’ when a child has fallen over or apply a Band-Aid. It can make the child feel better even though there is no medical reason why it should work.

You have nothing to lose by this understanding. If anything you will gain by increasing your ability to help heal your own body.

This raises an interesting thought that many of the pharmaceutical drugs that we rely on for pain and headaches etc. are only working for us some of the time and the rest is reliant on how we perceive they are going to work remembering that the detrimental side-effects are always possible.

Trying a natural approach first won’t have the problems associated with these drugs. Now IMAGINE also increasing their effectiveness by changing your thoughts or by an act of loving kindness helping another by applying an essential oil blend to a sore back or shoulder.

As Kapthuk acknowledges: “We have to transform the art of medicine into the science of care.”