The Power of the Placebo Effect: A New Discovery

Patient: HEAL THYSELF...

The power of the placebo effect
Source: Nursing School Hub (4)

The power of the placebo effect may be stronger than we think. A recent study has identified the location of the pain-killing placebo effect in the brain. It is currently common knowledge that the brain plays a role in creating a placebo effect in patients with chronic pain.  Scientists have now identified an explanation for this phenomenon.

History of the Placebo Effect

Today most of us identify placebos as sugar pills that are given to control groups that are participating in scientific studies. It is not uncommon for studies to report that some study participants in the control group who received placebos experienced a reduction in pain. The infographic above provides a good history of the power of the placebo effect.

Historically a placebo is considered an inert substance used to treat a patient’s mind rather than an actual symptom. The placebo effect is the positive effect that the placebo has on the patient.

The use of placebos dates back to 1785 when many “fake” physicians prescribed placebos for treating a patient’s symptoms. These placebos rarely improved a patient’s health. As a result, the term placebo was considered witch craft by most of the medical profession.

Later, Henry K Beecher developed the “double unknown technique” (2) that set the guidelines for the double blind study as we know it today. Neither the scientist nor the participants in these studies know who receives the real treatment and who receives a placebo. Beecher is responsible for the current respectability of the placebo effect. It is now common knowledge that the study participant’s belief in a positive outcome can result in a positive placebo effect. Prior to Beecher’s publication the placebo effect was considered suspect.

Today science understands that the brain plays an important role in healing. If we expect to get a positive result from a treatment, the placebo effect is sometimes positive. Until now, scientists have not understood the location in the brain responsible for the placebo effect.

Study Identifying the Power of the Placebo Effect

Chronic pain affects an estimated 100 million people in the USA alone.

Scientists at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and Dr. Marwan Baliki at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago identified the area of the brain that is responsible for the placebo effect in those of us who have chronic pain.

The goal of the study was to provide physicians who treat chronic pain with the ability to treat pain in a more scientific way than the “trial and error” (2) approach used today. The researchers wanted to identify specific biomarkers in the brain that predict the placebo effect.

The scientists decided to focus their study on participants who were suffering from chronic knee osteoporosis pain. Prior the the beginning of the study, participants self-rated their knee pain. A resting-state functional MRI was also performed on all participants in the study.

All participants were then given a placebo and were surveyed for their level of pain after receiving the placebo. About 1/2 of the participants reported a reduction in pain. The MRIs of participants who experienced a reduction in pain were different from the MRIs of participants who did not experience a reduction in pain. This allowed the scientists to identify the area of the brain responsible for the placebo effect. The study proved that the “brain is the biggest predictor of the placebo response.” (2)

The Importance of This Discovery for Those of Us With Chronic Pain

This was a small study that just looked at knee pain but it is a important discovery. The study identifies the area of the brain that is responsible for the placebo effect.  If a patient is given a certain drug and the MRI identifies that the drug will alleviate their pain then physicians will know in advance that the drug will be effective in treating that patient’s pain. This is a more personalized way of providing drug treatment than the current try-and-see method of proscribing drugs.

Those of us who have tried many drugs for RA and had no relief from our symptoms know that some drugs work for us, but do not work for everyone. This study could lead to a more specific treatment for all of us. It would not require us to risk side effects that many of these drugs produce. We would know in advance if the drug is going to improve our pain.

Once our pain is under control it is a lot easier to stay on a diet and exercise. The natural diet and lifestyle treatments that can actually put our RA in remission are much easier to comply with if we are pain free.

Wishing Each of You a Happy, Pain-free Holiday,





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