- This is a first in medical research…
- Could placebos become prescribed in the future?
- How having a face-to-face conversation every day could extend your life
Imagine a world where the doctor gave you fake pills.
…and you knew those pills were fake.
And yet you skip happily away from the GP’s surgery, knowing that you’ll feel better soon.
This could potentially become a reality.
It’s all thanks a FIRST in medical research.
A study has just been published in the journal, Pain, that could change the way we treat people with not only back pain but a whole range of issues, including fatigue, depression, digestive and urinary symptoms.
Before I explain…
You know what a placebo is, of course?
It’s a fake pill that you give to people during medical trials. The idea is that subjects have no idea whether they’re taking real pills or fake pills.
It’s how researchers avoid ‘the placebo effect’ when testing a new drug.
The placebo effect is where someone who believes a pill is genuinely helpful will report an improvement in their condition… even when the pill is fake.
Scientists have shown that our expectation of feeling better can have a real physical effect.
This creates an ethical question.
If they help ease pain, why can’t we get prescribed a placebo?
After all, it’s a nice idea that we could simply pop pills that have no side-effects (and no actual drugs in them either) and still feel better.
Yes, the world would be a weird place…
People carrying around little pills containing nothing useful… popping them after meals… getting panicky when they run out…
But if it works, why not?
The problem is, a doctor can’t prescribe a fake pill to help someone, even if it DOES make them feel better. It goes against every part of their ethical code.
The doctor would have to lie to a patient and pretend a drug was real when it wasn’t. If that patient then suffered because the placebo didn’t work, there would be serious repercussions.
What’s more, for years scientists have believed that if you KNOW something is a fake drug, then there is no beneficial effect. You cannot trick your mind.
Or can you?
This brand new study has turned this assumption on its head.
What if placebos work even when you know they’re placebos?
The new research published in Pain is the first to show that even when a sufferer KNOWS a pill is a placebo, there can still be an effect.
The trial looked at patients knowingly taking placebos alongside traditional back pain treatment… versus patients who relied only on the traditional methods.
The former group experienced significantly less pain…. even though they were aware the drug was fake.
In other words, you can prescribe a placebo, being honest about the fact, and still get results.
Tedd Kaptchuk, director of the Program for Placebo Studies says:
“Taking a pill in the context of a patient-clinician relationship – even if you know it’s a placebo – is a ritual that changes symptoms and probably activates regions of the brain that modulate symptoms.”
In other words, the relationship with your nurse or doctor and the ritual of getting a prescription can contribute to you feeling better.
There’s something about the bond of trust and the feeling of being ‘looked after’ that activates areas of the brain which begin to suppress pain and other symptoms.
So there are two things to take away from this…
The first is that it could be OK for doctors to prescribe placebos as part of an overall approach to health, combining traditional and – effectively – a psychological approach.
The second is that we should rethink the way we whisk people in and out of doctor’s surgeries as quickly as possible. It could be that the conversation and the intimacy – the feeling you’re being helped – could be as important in the healing process.
Bearing in mind the financial strain the NHS is under, I don’t hold out much hope for the latter.
But we can equally find solace in our friends, family and alternative health therapists who might give us more time and focus.
Really, when it comes down to it, we are social creatures, so we should consider relationships as part of our wellbeing.
A health factor that’s so often overlooked
A great deal of our wellbeing is rooted in the brain. Sometimes the solution to those nagging chronic health problems is not to douse ourselves in chemical suppressants and pain blockers… but to try and change our lives… to seek out a little happiness.
Stress, loneliness, lack of direction and trauma from previous experiences can be as much the cause of pain as a sprain. These problems can even shorten your life.
Steven Joyal, M.D., vice president of scientific affairs and medical development for an organisation called Life Extensions says: “The idea that social interaction is important to mental and physical health has been hinted at and studied for years.”
He believes it’s a major contributing factor to a longer, happier life.
In his book, Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection, the American neuroscientist John Cacioppo claims that social isolation has an impact on health comparable to high blood pressure, obesity, lack of exercise and smoking. It can suppress your immune function, raise levels of stress hormones and affect the heart.
The key is to take some small steps towards improving your sense of happiness and wellbeing.
Last Thursday I talked about a book that could offer you a practical starting point. It’s designed to activate positive thoughts in your brain using 47 one-minute psychological games and activities’ that will help change your mindset in as little as a minute.
And for further reading, take a look at these two articles on the People’s Doctor website.
• Discover why watching a film is a form of pain relief. Researchers at Oxford University have shown that you get an almighty endorphin release if you watch a certain type of movie. Click here for more.
• Why reading extends your life. A survey shows that readers experience a 20% reduction in risk of mortality over 12 years compared to non-book readers. Click here to find out more.
I’ll be back with more insights and new research on Saturday. Until then, stay healthy!