The Placebo Effect


The word placebo is a Latin word meaning, ‘I shall please’. The dictionary meaning of placebo, as we use the term nowadays is ‘an inert substance or procedure which nevertheless has a positive effect’, whereas once it would have been something like, ‘an inert substance which is given to please the patient but which has no effect’. This change of definition emphasizes our learning that the placebo effect is very real and potentially very effective and we should make use of it whenever and wherever we can.

Faith healing was part of all ancient religions and continues to be part of modern ones, including such famous examples as the Catholic shrines at Lourdes and Fatima.

There was also the phenomenon of Royal Touch, in which the power of the priest was subsumed by the king. Most famous for this was King Charles 2nd who is said to have cured 100, 000 subjects by laying on of hands during his reign.

The early science of the Enlightenment in the late 18th century brought Franz Anton Mesmer’s ‘animal magnetism’, often said to be the origin of hypnosis. A subsequent investigation by a scientific panel, set up by Louis XVI and including Benjamin Franklin, found Mesmer’s claims for animal magnetism to have no basis and concluded that any effects he had were due to the power of suggestion. This avoided the awkward issue that he did actually heal people!

During World War 2, a surgeon Henry Beecher ran out of morphine, while treating wounded soldiers on the battlefield. A quick-witted nurse is said to have drawn up a vial of saline and injected that instead, with good effect. Beecher went on to become a prominent writer and researcher on placebo into the 1950’s and was influential in the establishment of the modern double blind controlled clinical trial. The quick witted nurse has faded into obscurity.

A typical example from published research on the placebo effect is a study of patients with asthma, 50% of whom became wheezy with one inert inhaler that they were told contained an irritant and then got better when given another inert inhaler which was said to contain an asthma drug

Following Beecher’s example, many trials have been done in which placebos have been substituted for analgesics, almost always with significant positive effect. In fact, the placebo effect has been shown to be effective in pretty much every area of medicine.

Placebo surgery has even been shown to work. Well known examples include keyhole procedures for knee meniscus problems and operations on collapsed vertebrae.

In 2010, Ted Kaptchuk and his team gave patients with IBS placebo pills labelled ‘placebo pills’ and still found them to be effective.

So how does it work?

I won’t go into the details of cells, neurotransmitters, neuropeptides etc as it would make the article too long. But from a psychological point of view, it’s about conditioning, expectation and meaning.

Conditioning – if you trust your doctor and he or she has always treated you successfully in the past, the next treatment is likely to be effective too.

Expectation – if a treatment is very expensive or has been used by a famous person, this will often strengthen our expectation that it will work, and it probably will

Meaning – if we believe that sore throats are caused by bacteria and not viruses, we are likely to believe we need antibiotics for our sore throat and will struggle to get better without them

So to conclude, I hope I have demonstrated that the placebo effect is real, it is scientifically plausible and it works even when we know something is a placebo. Surely  we must conclude from this that we do indeed have the potential to heal . . .almost anything . . .with our minds