Hooray! Science hasn’t figured everything out yet. There is more to discover and explore about the world. The funny thing is, though, that when we don’t have an explanation for something it can seem pretty spooky. For example, our minds and bodies can do something very mysterious. Sometimes our bodies can be fooled into getting better when we are sick or in pain without proven treatment or even real surgery. A fake remedy for a physical or mental complaint is known as a placebo and placebo effect is what happens when the fake remedy actually works to make someone feel better.
For example, imagine that someone who suffers from headaches is given a prescription for sugar pills (sugar isn’t a medicine (you knew that)). She takes the sugar pill like an aspirin for a headache and the headache goes away.
Placebo researchers aren’t sure why placebos work. It could be because the medical problem was almost over anyway or that people are used to having medical problems relieved by pills, so the very act of taking a pill or getting a shot causes it to go away. Other researchers say that it is the belief or expectation that the treatment is going to help that causes our bodies to trigger a cascade of processes related to being treated and cured. Others suggest that going through the motions of seeking a remedy to a complaint is responsible for some relief. The coolest thing about the placebo effect is that even though it is unexplained and mysterious at this time, it is real and well-documented.
This video shows a dramatic example of the placebo effect:
This is like getting scientific proof of the benefits of witch doctoring. The act of going through the motion of invasive knee surgery was enough to relieve this man’s agonizing knee pain.
Don’t worry, surgeons in most countries are not allowed to pretend to operate on you unless you give them permission.
The placebo effect works enough under certain conditions to make it a very intriguing field of study. Perhaps someday soon the placebo effect can be used to relieve a percentage of minor health complaints. Maybe it could save people money, minimize side effects and drug interactions.
I already use a placebo a few times a week. My personal pet placebo has NEVER, EVER* been trashed by science for it is the one-true-most-effective-placebo-of-all-time. There is lots of evidence to support that my one-true-most-effective-placebo-of-all-time contributes to optimal health. I exercise. Over and above the scientifically verified benefits of exercise, I
might be AM DEFINITELY enjoying an extra placebo kick of well being. Yes. Plus, it gives me a youthful glow, don’t you think?
Here is Ben Goldacre discussing the current findings of research into the placebo effect, as well as the ethics surrounding the use of placebos:
He also did a two-part radio program on placebos that you can find here.
I also recommend Bad Science: Quacks, Hacks, and Big Pharma Flacks by Ben Goldacre. It has a whole chapter on the placebo effect. This book is also a very good easy-to-read primer on using the scientific method to weed out bad solutions to health problems.
*If it has, be nice and don’t tell me.