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03 Mar 2014

The Placebo Effect

Written by RobynWoodham Category:

The power of our minds in creating physiological responses

A person’s beliefs are really important in determining their response to the world.  Nowhere is that more apparent than with the placebo effect, where the power of our beliefs and expectations becomes apparent through our body’s response to medicine and medical interventions.

Examples of the placebo effect in action can be seen in quite simple studies.  For example, in one study people were invited in and different liquids put on each arm, one a toxin and one just water.  Each person was then told which was the toxin and which substance was harmless, but with half the people given the information incorrectly and believing the toxin and the harmless substance to be the opposite of what they actually were.  Results showed that the vast majority of people reacted by getting a rash in reaction to the substance they thought was the toxin and not to the toxin itself, demonstrating that the beliefs of the people were more important in determining their body’s reaction to the substance than the substance itself.

An even more powerful example showing the power of the placebo effect comes from a case written up in a well known medical journal years ago.  A cancer patient who was very ill and suffering greatly from his illness went to his doctor begging him to get him on a trial of a new drug reported to be potentially very effective in the treatment of cancer.  At the time he was struggling.   He had gone from being fit, healthy and a keen pilot to being barely able to walk, stopping every few metres to regain his breath and remaining in bed most of the time.  He was convinced that the new drug was what he needed to overcome his cancer.  To his delight his doctor managed to get him on the new drug trial and the results were astounding.  Within weeks he was back to full fitness and even back in the air, flying in low oxygen conditions and thriving.  The news was then released that the new drug was proving to be ineffective in the treatment of cancer.  The patient’s health plummeted.  Within days he was in very poor condition again, struggling for breath and housebound.  Observing this, the doctor decided to do something he would never normally do.  He prescribed the patient “a new and improved version” of the drug, explaining that the reason for the drug being ineffective was its poor half life, which had since been remedied and the drug made effective as a result.  The response was immediate.  Within days the patient was up once more, full of energy and doing all the things he loved.  Unfortunately this was short lived, with the patient finding out that the drug had not been improved after all.  That the drug was ineffective in the treatment of cancer, had always been ineffective in the treatment of cancer, and always would be.  His condition deteriorated rapidly and a few days later, he died.

These examples show the power of the mind in affecting our health and our ability to heal.  Studies have shown that pills are more effective when they are certain shapes and colours.  Placebo surgeries have been conducted and shown great improvements for the person operated on.  The mind is an extremely powerful tool.  The question is simply how we can guide it in the best way possible.  Being aware of our beliefs and our expectations is important in this and reframing things in the most positive way possible is an extremely valuable thing to do.  For example we can view symptoms as reminders from our body to treat ourselves well and signs that our immune system is alive and well.  We can imagine our bodies successfully fighting off disease and taking the nutrients they need from food to function well.  Indeed any thoughts, beliefs or expectations which support us in keeping our bodies functioning well are useful and to be encouraged, as are fostering those beliefs in others.

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