Saturday, July 21, 2007

Placebo effect: How to make best use of it

placebo pill
Part 2/3

In my previous post I have taken a look at the so-called placebo effect and I have done it with the eye of the consumer or layperson or patient. The term placebo effect has been coined by scientists and doctors, and it turns out that it is not very useful for us consumers who care about our own health.

Sometimes, doctors give placebo to patients when they believe these to just imagine that they are sick. When patients find out later, they feel fooled. Or they take a pill and feel better and later read in a blog or somewhere elso that this pill is useless and just «a placebo». Again, if they believe in the negative report, they will feel fooled.

Therefore I have cast my critical consumerist eye on the placebo effect itself. My conclusion: it does not exist in a strict sense. Forget that red sugar pill. It is worth nothing, and it has no effect. What doctors call the placebo effect is in reality the power of mind, and this is real. You cannot be fooled by this power. It has two important dimensions: imagination and self-healing.

The power of imagination

Suppose you are suffering from pain, let's say six points on a ten point scale where 1 is no pain at all and 10 is unbearable. Normally, you will concentrate on the six pain grades, but you may also imagine the four grades that are not pain - just as in the often cited half-full or half-empty glass. Some more examples. With a sore throat you may put your focus on the spots that are not sore. With a broken leg you may put your focus on the non-broken leg.

Remember, this focus shift is one of the main elements of the placebo effect. But you do not need a red sugar pill turn it on, once you have got how it works. As a result, the condition where you put your focus becomes more prominent, and the condition that you put aside becomes less prominent. Thus, even without any objective improvement, you have the subjective impression of being better.

The power of self-healing

Mind has a powerful influence on the immune system that fights diseases (see psychoneuroimmunology) and on the release of natural pain killers of our body (see endorphins). By this way, mind can have a similar effect as a real drug. This effect is measurable by exact scientific methods and it is the second dimension of the placebo effect.

The self-healing powers of the body work best in a stress-free situation. Again, you need no red sugar pill to reduce stress. What you may need is a person that cares for you, not necessarily a doctor. What you need for sure is the feeling that the real healing job is done by your body and that many treatments from outside just give it more power. Not in every case, of course: In certain infections, your self-healing powers would be lost without the power of antibiotics.

How much can we expect from the self-healing powers of mind? I have seen that a lot of research has been done on this question, and I take a closer look in my last post of this series.

Photo credit: Wellcome Library, London

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