What if saline could relieve chronic pain? Or sugar could cure your insomnia? While this may sound too good to be true, that is essentially what happens via the placebo effect.
A placebo is a pseudo-treatment such as a sugar pill or saline injection that is administered as if it were a real medication. Placebos were initially created as controls for testing new medications; however, researchers soon observed that the placebos themselves could have the power to relieve symptoms. For unclear reasons, placebos can have a therapeutic effect on physical and mental conditions such as chronic pain, insomnia, dementia, depression and migraine disorders. This realization has led to research on the placebo effect to investigate the power of the mind in the healing process.
The remedial effects of a placebo have been shown to occur when the patient is “blind,” or under the impression that the placebo could actually be a real medication. For example, patients may be told that they will receive one of two identical pills to treat their high blood pressure: an experimental drug for lowering blood pressure or a sugar pill. Often, improvements will be seen in both the drug and placebo groups. New research suggests that the placebo effect can actually be enhanced if both the physicians and patients are blind. When physicians believe that a placebo is in fact an effective medication, their patients can benefit. This raises an interesting point concerning the importance of the doctor-patient relationship.
In a recent study on healthcare interactions, a group of undergraduate students were split into two groups: doctors and patients. The doctor group received two creams to administer to the patients and were told that one cream was a pain reliever and the other a placebo. In reality, however, both creams were a petroleum jelly placebo with no pain-relieving function. To test the effectiveness of the treatment, the doctors applied a heat stimulus following administration of either cream and then measured the reported pain, facial expressions and autonomic response of the patients.
Remarkably, less pain was observed across all factors for the patients whose doctors believed the placebo was a pain reliever. When the doctors trusted that the medication could help their patients, they expressed fewer pained facial expressions and were perceived by their patients to be more empathetic. These subconscious nonverbal cues translated directly to reduced patient pain levels.
The results of this research support the implementation of a more holistic approach to pain management. In this study, patients were successfully treated without the administration of any real medication. This suggests that treatments which do not involve pharmaceuticals could still be effective in caring for a patient experiencing pain. If there are means to suppress pain besides the prescription of addictive painkillers, which are often and easily abused, these alternative therapies should be explored.
This study also emphasizes the importance of positive social interactions between doctors and patients in effective patient care. It is not enough for physicians to be knowledgeable on the most efficacious treatments and medications. Rather, a physician must also strive to foster an encouraging and hopeful relationship with their patient. Doctors should endeavor to practice patient-centered care, listening and tending to their patients in a way that puts their patients at ease. If patients are able to trust that their doctors truly care about their well-being and the success of their treatment, the patients are more likely to trust in the treatment itself. And as demonstrated by the placebo effect, sometimes simply believing that they are being healed is enough.
Veronica Eskander is a contributor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at email@example.com.