The Placebo Effect can be defined as a cure, recovery or medical improvement based in the mind and not on the efficacy of any drug or other therapeutic intervention. It highlights that the connection between mind and body is profound, far more so than previously thought. More specifically, the placebo effect is one of the most powerful indicators of the positive influence of the mind on the body.
In this blog, I highlight that the placebo effect illustrates how one’s belief surrounding the healing power of an inactive ‘medicine’ or treatment can trigger substantial physiological effects in one’s body. It is the expectation, the belief in a positive outcome, that subsequently brings about improvement or recovery. This recovery occurs even though an administered drug has no active substance and no pharmacological capacity to affect one’s physiology in a positive way. Improvement occurs even though an apparent medical intervention is a sham. Fundamentally, improvement and recovery are mind-driven.
Much about the placebo effect remains a mystery, but we do know that certain factors play a role. We know, for example, that a patient’s positive expectations of recovery play a significant role. This, coupled with the patient’s belief in the curative power of the specific treatment or ‘medicine’ (placebo), is highly significant. In instances where a patient has had prior experience of the real, or active medicine being effective, that experience also seems to play a role in the efficacy of the placebo. Furthermore, any visual suggestion that the pill, injection or treatment is genuine is another factor indicated to impact on the outcome. Research also shows that medical and health professionals, particularly where there is a relationship of trust between them and their patient, can play a major role. The power of positive suggestion from a credible, trusted medical source can significantly influence the patient’s improvement. Although the relative impact of each of these factors will vary from person to person, what does not vary is that improvement and recovery are entirely mind-driven. The mind seemingly triggers the natural intelligence of the body to bring about healing.
Most of the investigative work into the placebo effect has focused on pain relief, but broader research is showing that the placebo effect is not confined to this. By way of example, the placebo effect has been demonstrated in numerous conditions responsive to psychological factors including asthma, ulcers and depression. Furthermore, inflammation and swelling respond to placebo and hence illustrate the placebo effect. The challenging and debilitating condition of Parkinson’s Disease has been shown to respond to placebo as well.
The placebo effect has also been illustrated in surgical procedures. In 2002, research was conducted into a group of patients requiring arthroscopic knee surgery (Moseley et al). Patients were divided into three groups and received either real surgical treatment, arthroscopic lavage or placebo ‘sham’ surgery. Neither the patients, nor the medical professionals evaluating them for the 24-month post-operative period, knew which of the treatments they received. Post-operative assessment was based on pain and level of function, and specifically addressed walking and climbing stairs. The follow-up results showed that there was no difference between the three groups in relation to pain reduction and improved function after the 24-month post-operative period. Perhaps more significantly, the objective measurements of walking and climbing stairs were poorer for those patients who had received arthroscopic knee surgery than for the placebo ‘sham’ surgery group.
The potential power of placebo is clearly evidenced in this study and in many more objective studies of this nature. In some cases, albeit rare, the placebo effect has been shown to exceed what some may consider possible. One such case is that recorded by psychologist, Dr Bruno Klopfer, in 1957. This is a landmark case of the placebo effect when the drug, Krebiozen, was tested in the United States as a treatment for cancer.
At the time, Krebiozen received sensational acclaim in the newspapers as the panacea, the cancer cure that everyone had been searching for. Wright, a patient suffering from lymphosarcoma, in his case an extremely advanced malignancy of the lymph nodes, implored his physician, Dr Philip West, to include him as a subject in this Krebiozen testing phase. Although Wright was so close to death that he did not qualify for this test phase Dr West agreed to include him, and treatment commenced.
Within ten days the huge tumour masses throughout Wright’s body shrank dramatically. He no longer required oxygen. The fluid on his chest, which needed to be physically removed every second day, disappeared. All signs of the disease receded. Wright left the hospital and resumed a normal life.
Two months later, however, negative reports about Krebiozen became widely publicised. Wright’s relapse was dramatic. Dr West felt it necessary to take extreme measures. He convinced Wright not to believe all that he had read. Dr West also assured Wright that he had secured a super-refined, double-strength, concentrated and far more effective version of Krebiozen that he knew would produce excellent results. With much fanfare West administered the ‘new drug’ to his patient; a drug which was, in fact, nothing more than a series of saline injections. Wright’s recovery was even more dramatic than previously, and his symptoms vanished. He regained his health and, once more, resumed a normal life.
The patient’s expectations, thoughts, hopes and positive beliefs about the medication, and his expectation of his desired outcome, facilitated his recovery from a very serious illness. This, coupled with the trusting relationship he had with his doctor, was causal in his recovery. Such is the power of the placebo effect.
Wright remained symptom free for over two months. At this point Krebiozen was media headlined as a worthless drug and written off as a potential cure. The impact on Wright was devastating. He lost faith and belief, and he began to doubt. He no longer thought of the new Krebiozen as a cure for his condition and he lost all hope. Dr West felt he could do no more. Within a few days Wright was rushed to hospital and, in less than two days after admission, he passed away.
This landmark case is dramatic evidence of the placebo effect and although cases of this nature are rare, they happen. Furthermore, as this blog suggests, there is an increasing number of researched and reported studies supportive of the placebo effect and the powerful role that placebo can play. It is also important to point out here that although this blog has focused on adults, the placebo effect has been strongly evidenced in young children as well.
The increasing awareness of the power of the placebo effect supports the premise that your mind, your consciousness, can create demonstrable physical change and healing; physical change and healing that is purely mind-driven. As the title of this blog suggests, the placebo effect highlights the treatment power of your own mind.
Dr Elaine L Finkelstein is a registered clinical psychologist and a registered occupational psychologist. She is a chartered psychologist (UK) and an associate fellow of the British Psychological Society. Elaine is also the founder of the Transformative End-of-Life Experiences Research Foundation.
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