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Placebo effect: everything you should know
December 9, 2020
Do you think the mind can heal the body? Does it seem possible to you that our thoughts influence the pain we feel or the diseases we suffer from? If this sounds crazy to you, you may be interested in learning about the fascinating placebo effect.
It is a reality that has been empirically verified on numerous occasions, but it never ceases to surprise researchers and health professionals. If you have had contact with children, or if you remember your own childhood, you will have seen how a kiss from Mom or a Band-Aid produces almost immediate relief from pain, anguish and discomfort.
This also happens to us adults. And it is that, many times, the simple fact of being examined by a doctor produces improvement in our ailments. Or, we even got to feel really more active and clear after having a coffee that, later we found, was decaffeinated.
How is it possible that all this happens? The so-called placebo effect has been studied for decades and, although its mechanism of action is not yet fully understood, we do have a rough idea of how it works. We will explain more about it below.
What is the placebo effect?
A placebo is called any substance, technique or procedure that pretends to be medical therapy without actually being one. For example, sugar pills that are given after convincing the patient that it is an active drug. Or acupuncture sessions that are performed without the needles pressing any useful point.
Applied in an appropriate context, these interventions, which do not have any therapeutic properties, manage to improve the health status of the person. In other words, an improvement occurs with a procedure with no real capacity to generate it.
It is estimated that this phenomenon occurs in approximately 35% of the population. However, this percentage can increase depending on various factors. The reputation of the doctor, the healthcare environment or the type of procedure that is applied can influence its effects.
For example, intravenous injections appear to generate the placebo effect to a greater extent than taking medications by mouth.
How does the placebo effect work in our brain?
The question that arises is, how is it possible that the placebo effect happens? Well, two ways that lead to the emergence of the placebo effect have been detected: expectations and conditioning.
Regarding the first, we can affirm that expectations of healing trigger physiological processes in the body that provide relief. If the person hopes or believes that this medication, technique or procedure will cure them, they will likely improve.
These expectations may arise because you trust the treatment you think you are receiving, because the doctor's word gives you confidence, or just because you are in a health environment where your condition is being treated.
Through this mechanism it has been achieved not only an increase in subjective well-being, but also tangible and observable modifications, such as a decrease in heart pressure or an increase in the secretion of opioids in the body.
Meanwhile, classical conditioning also plays an important role in the functioning of the placebo effect. This occurs when we associate certain stimuli with certain responses or consequences.
For example, if when we have a headache, we usually take a pill and experience improvement, this relief may also occur when taking a similar tablet, but without real therapeutic properties. So, it is the association between medical procedures and healing that achieves these changes.
Discover more: The placebo effect in diet
There is also the nocebo effect
However, the placebo effect is not always positive and beneficial. It has also been shown that these same mechanisms can generate what is known as the nocebo effect. It is about the appearance of negative consequences that are not related to the properties of the medicine or the procedure applied.
For example, if someone expects the alleged medication they are receiving to have side effects, they may experience them on their health, even though there really is no cause. You can read more about it in this article.
When is it usually used?
The placebo effect is of special importance within the scientific and health field. And is that used in research and clinical trials to test the effectiveness of new drugs.
In this way, the participants are divided into two groups: one is given the drug (control group) and the other a placebo. Thus, the drug is considered valid when the improvement is significantly greater in the drug group than in the control group.
Keep reading: Stages of drug development
What to remember about the placebo effect?
Although the placebo effect is used as a control measure in research, its implications in daily life are important. Let's keep in mind that This phenomenon illustrates the important relationship between the body and the mind.
Therefore, it opens a window to the powerful role that our beliefs and expectations play in health. So, let's make our mind an ally and take care of the content of our thoughts.
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