Can a Placebo Relieve Your Pain Even When You Know It’s a Placebo?

The "placebo effect" might be more effective than previously believed

What if the placebo effect could be used as an effective medical technique? That's exactly what some researchers are discovering.
XoMEoX/Creative Commons

There’s a new way to treat pain on the horizon, except it’s not a new way at all. And while it has something in common with treating chronic pain via medicine, calling it a pharmaceutical cure wouldn’t be entirely accurate, either. Instead, these patients are taking a placebo, a common enough remedy when in the midst of medical testing, but not one known for its effectiveness — that’s the point of a placebo. At least, one would think it is.

But now, a group of health professionals are looking to redefine what placebos can be used for — and people with chronic pain might be the ones who benefit.

At The Wall Street Journal, Sumathi Reddy wrote about a growing movement of people using placebos to treat chronic pain even when they know the nature of the placebo — in other words, that it contains nothing actually designed to treat their condition.

Why do this? For one thing, chronic pain medications can have unpleasant side effects. Reddy writes that research indicates that “[a]s many as 30% to 50% of chronic pain patients will respond to placebos.”

The idea of the “placebo effect” having actual medical benefits is one that doctors and researchers have been exploring for a few years now. An article in Harvard Men’s Health Watch explored the nature of the placebo effect. It quoted Professor Ted Kaptchuk, a researcher at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, who discussed the specific areas where placebos have shown the most promise.

“They have been shown to be most effective for conditions like pain management, stress-related insomnia, and cancer treatment side effects like fatigue and nausea,” Kaptchuk said. At a moment in time when concerns over the opioid epidemic are causing some hospitals to restrict pain medication, the placebo effect might have an essential medical role to play.

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