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Does The Placebo Effect Really Work?


Have you ever taken a product and really believed it will help you to feel better?

A U.S study has found that participants, who were given a fake painkiller and told it was fake still felt better after taking it.

Scientists applied heated Vaseline with blue food colouring to the participant’s forehead. The volunteers thought this was a gel containing a painkiller. The Vaseline was heated to 47.5c, and then without telling the participants, the scientists reduced the heat. When the volunteers felt the heat being reduced they thought the gel was relieving their pain. The scientists asked the volunteers to read the side effects on drug forms and asked them had they liver problems, and if they were taking medication. After four sessions the scientists found that the participant’s brains had being trained to believe that the products worked, even though it was fake. The only volunteers who didn’t feel the benefit from this treatment were people who worked in restaurants. They had a high pain threshold because they were used to carrying hot plates of food.

Senior author Tor Wager of the University of Colorado Boulder said: ‘We’re still learning a lot about the critical ingredients of placebo effects.’ ‘What we think now is that they require both belief in the power of the treatment and experiences that are consistent with those beliefs.’

Researcher Scott Schafer said ‘They believed the treatment was effective in relieving pain. After this process, they had acquired the placebo effect.’ ‘We tested them with and without the treatment on medium intensity. They reported less pain with the placebo.’ He said that he hopes the placebo effect will help to wean adults and children who are dependent on painkillers due to surgical reasons or illness, off them. Mr

Schafer added ‘If a child has an experience with a drug working, you could wean them off the drug or switch that drug to a placebo and have them continue taking it’. ‘We know placebos induce the release of pain-relieving substances in the brain, but we don’t yet know whether this expectation – independent placebo effect is using the same or different systems.’

Schafer, Wager, and co-author Luana Colloca, of the University of Maryland Baltimore had their paper regarding these findings published in the May issue of The Journal of Pain. They called their paper ‘Conditioned Placebo Analgesia Persists When Subjects Know They Are Receiving a Placebo.’

What is the placebo effect?

A placebo is a type of treatment that looks like an ordinary pill, liquid or medical substance but it isn’t real. Although the placebo effect doesn’t directly work on the disease, placebos can really help some people to psychologically feel better. A person who has felt better after receiving a placebo, is called the placebo effect. Scientists believe it works with the body’s natural chemical response to alleviate pain and other symptoms. Sometimes a placebo can seem to cause distressing side effects such as headaches, anxiety, nausea, etc.

This is called the nocebo effect. These two opposite outcomes are called ‘expectation effects.’ In other words, what the person expects regarding the outcome will happen. If he expects to notice an improvement in his symptoms, this will happen. Alternatively if he thinks he will feel sick, this will also happen. Some people can get the placebo effect after seeing their doctor if they have confidence in him to help them to feel better. Placebo results are viewed as important in medical research. Their outcome gauges the effect of the product being tested. Placebos are also used in clinical trials. Products are tested in the laboratory first, and if this is satisfactory, the products are tested on animals. If the animals have received few or no ill effects, it can then be used on humans.

The researchers are looking for 5 main questions when testing.

1. Does this treatment work?

2. Does it work better than what we are now using?

3. What side effects does it cause?

4. Do the benefits of the treatment outweigh the risks?

5. Which patients are most likely to find this treatment helpful?

The reason for having a placebo group in clinical trials is so that any outcome is because of the treatment, and not due to another reason. Participants often drop out of studies if the placebo is not working for them, or if they are finding the study is going on for too long. This can cause a miscalculation in the final analysis. A double blind controlled study is where neither the participants in the study, nor their doctors know who is getting the placebo or who is getting the treatment. This allows them both to be more objective about the treatment, because they have no preconceived ideas about it.

Scientists believe that the nocebo effect may be due to the person feeling anxious, and the person’s pain tolerance is lowered when they are stressed. Other nocebo effects may be if someone reports noticing a rash on their arm after receiving their placebo treatment. The person may then associate the rash with the placebo effect, rather than looking at whether they had eaten anything different, or put on a different lotion etc.

Doctors have used placebos as an effective treatment to reduce the symptoms of anxiety and insomnia in patients. Placebos and pain medication seem to be ineffective when treating patients with Alzheimer’s disease. In one study people with Alzheimer’s disease required a higher dosage of pain killers. They had forgotten that they had being given pain medicine and if it had previously worked for them. This was because they didn’t remember taking the medicine, and equally didn’t have any expectations about the medicine working for them. So it didn’t work for them.

In conclusion placebos don’t cure but they can help some people to feel better, and some people to feel worse. Clinical trials which aren’t carefully planned or created can come out with inaccurate results. One theory is clear though, and that is the power of the mind.

An individual’s outcome, whether it has either positive or negative results, depends on the person’s perception of what their end result will be.

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