The Placebo Effect: Is it Real, or is it Fake?

placebo noun

pla·ce·bo | \ plə-ˈsē-(ˌ)bō \
plural placebos
Definition of placebo
1: a usually pharmacologically inert preparation prescribed more for the mental relief of the patient than for its actual effect on a disorder

2: something tending to soothe

More commonly, the placebo effect is known as the mind’s ability to convince your body that a false treatment is real, producing physical improvements.

If something appears in the Mirriam-Webster Dictionary, it must be legitimate. Right? Something about this idea of a physical substance that offers relief through mental trickery sounds like something akin to magic.

The placebo effect has been a healing approach employed by caregivers for millennia, and modern-day scientists rely on placebos in research and clinical trials. Yet, patients still doubt the possibility of a pill that can soothe symptoms without medicine by merely making the patient believe its efficacy.

Is the placebo effect real, or is it a myth? For the answer, we turn to science.

More Than the Power of Positive Thinking

Researchers tell us that while there are emotional and physical benefits to positive thinking, the placebo effect is stronger than the concept of mind over matter. It can be equally as effective as some medical treatments in certain circumstances.

It is vital to understand that placebos are not cures. They cannot remove scar tissue from your heart or heal a broken bone. Placebos can, however, mitigate the symptoms associated with some conditions. More specifically, placebos can impact the body’s sensation of symptoms regulated by the brain. Situations in which the placebo effect can be useful include stress-related insomnia, pain management, and some cancer side effects, like nausea and exhaustion.

Researchers believe that to maximize the possibility of the placebo effect, you need to pair it with the mind’s understanding of the ritual of treatment. It is not enough to swallow a pill. We must believe that we are being treated by a caregiver and trust that we are being prescribed a legitimate solution as part of a formal plan for the placebo effect to be as effective as possible.

The Role of Placebos in Clinical Trials

The placebo effect has long been used in clinical trials to test the efficacy of new drugs and treatment modalities before they enter the market. To ensure that a medication or treatment produces the intended benefits, researchers will give a segment of a clinical trial group a placebo—often a sugar pill with no medicinal qualities.

In a blind study, neither the group that received the placebo nor the group that received the drug knows which version they received. In this way, researchers can help mitigate the possibility of the placebo effect—patients believing that they are experiencing benefits, and reporting them back to researchers, simply because they have been told that they are receiving a viable treatment. As an alternate approach, both groups are told that they have received the treatment being tested. If both groups report improvements (or none), researchers know that the drug or treatment is not effective.

The Reliability and Ongoing Mystery of the Placebo

Scientists are still not entirely sure why placebos are effective, although they believe a complicated neurobiological reaction in the brain is involved. Is it a surprise that the mind, which has the power to release feel-good endorphins, can be leveraged to soothe pain and mental anguish through some harmless coaxing?

If there is anything that we can learn from the placebo effect and the mysteries surrounding its efficacy, it is this: your mind is a powerful ally in your quest for healing. Treat yourself kindly, listen to your body, and prioritize activities and rituals that promote positivity and wellness. With a positive outlook and a team of caregivers you trust, you put yourself in the best position to live a healthy, happy life.

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