It seems that the research on the placebo effect is broadening and deepening.
“Over the last several years, doctors noticed a mystifying trend: Fewer and fewer new pain drugs were getting through double-blind placebo control trials, the gold standard for testing a drug’s effectiveness.”
This recent article, which includes some useful links for further reading, points to the degree in which the placebo effect (classified by the writer as a ‘family of overlapping psychological phenomena’) is being studied and considered. The family of placebo effects ranges ‘from the common sense to some head scratchers’, and include:
1) Regression to the mean
2) Confirmation bias
3) Expectations and learning
4) Pharmacological conditioning (‘This is where things get a little weird’)
5) Social learning
6) A human connection
Interestingly, it seems that at least in pain studies, ‘there’s evidence that placebos actually release opioids in the brain’.
In another article in Mother Jones, What the Heck Is a Placebo Anyway?, the authors propose ‘… we now know that they (placebos) often involve real chemicals produced by the body—real drugs from your “internal pharmacy.” Some of these chemicals are used by the brain to make sure that your expectation meets reality. When expectation doesn’t meet reality, the brain steps in and forces it to fit.’
Over at Fox News (of all people), quoting the Wall Street Journal, they’re suggesting ‘Placebo drugs really work, evidence suggests‘.
Placebo ‘drugs’? Come on, folks, that misses the point a bit!
Damien Finniss was working as a physiotherapist when, on a still winter’s afternoon in 2001, he set up his treatment table in a shed at the perimeter of a Sydney footy ground.
As players came off with sundry aches – a pulled hammy here, a calf strain there – Finniss ministered to them with therapeutic ultrasound, a device that applies sound waves to the injured area with a handheld probe.
“I treated in excess of five or six athletes during the training session. I’d treat them for five or 10 minutes and they’d say ‘I feel much better’ and run back on to the training field,” recalls Finniss, now a medical doctor and Associate Professor at the University of Sydney’s Pain Management and Research Institute.
“But, at the end of the session, I realised that I’d, basically, had the machine turned off.”
Read the whole article here.
Meanwhile, in Germany, researchers reveal some convincing evidence of the impact of the placebo effect, discovering that “a person’s expectations have a major influence on just how strenuous they perceive exercise to be.”
“Certain types of elective surgery only benefit patients because of placebo effect, says Prof Andy Carr.”
We’ve posted on this previously, on the mater of ‘sham srugery’ for knee pain actually having a substantial impact on lessening pain. In this case, a senior orthopaedic surgeon in Britain, says “The correct thing has got to be to do … trials – not to continue doing operations where we don’t know whether or not there’s a strong placebo component or an entire placebo component because that means that tens or hundreds of thousands of patients are having unnecessary operations,” he said.
That’s right – ‘tens or hundreds of thousands’.
Another professor, also from Oxford, points out the opinion, which we have seen has been gathering momentum (and scientific respectablity) over the past couple of years, that ‘deception’ is not a requirement for the engagement of the placebo effect. “In the modern world where we’re trying to limit the amount of time physicians spend with patients we’re going in the opposite direction of what the science is telling us, which is that [expectation] is really important physiologically and therapeutically and we’re throwing that away.”
Read the whole Guardian article here.
So now we have ‘placebo politics’, meaning “elevating or reducing the status of this or that group through symbolic actions that won’t have much if any material impact on policy.” In this article the USA’s withdrawal from the Paris climate agreements is seen as placebo politics: it won’t make any difference because the agreement was only ever a voluntary one and it’s “already being flouted”. Why, then, invoke the placebo response? Perhaps … for votes at home?
And more on the efficacy of so-called ‘open label’ placebos (like ours!)
Linda Buonanno had suffered 15 years of intense cramps, bloating, diarrhoea and pain she describes as “worse than labour”. She was willing to try anything to get relief from her irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and leapt at the chance to take part in a trial of an experimental new therapy. Her hope turned to disappointment, however, when the researcher handed her a bottle of capsules he described as placebos containing no active ingredients.
Nonetheless, she took the pills twice daily. Four days later, her symptoms all but vanished. “I know it sounds crazy,” says Buonanno, of Methuen, Massachusetts. “I felt fantastic. I knew they were just sugar pills, but I was able to go out dancing and see my friends again.”
Placebos have a reputation problem. It is widely believed they are only effective when those taking them are deceived into thinking they are taking real drugs. As such, prescribing dummy or fake treatments is unethical. Yet in Buonanno’s case there was no deception. And she is not alone. A review of five studies, involving 260 patients, published last month found that “open-label” placebos – those that patients know contain no active medication – can improve symptoms in a range of conditions. This growing body of evidence raises a number of important questions. How do open-label placebos work? Which conditions do they work for? And should doctors prescribe them?
Read the whole article here.
Corticosteroids are a class of steroid hormones that are produced in the adrenal cortex of vertebrates, as well as the synthetic analogues of these hormones. They have been commonly prescribed for sufferers of knee pain and inflammation, called synovitis, or knee osteroarthritis. In common with most steroids, these drugs are associated with a wide variety of adverse side effects. Depending on the dose, these may include:
Elevated pressure in the eyes (glaucoma)
Fluid retention, causing swelling in your lower legs
High blood pressure
Problems with mood, memory, behavior and other psychological effects
Weight gain, with fat deposits in your abdomen, face and the back of the neck
Taking the drugs over a longer period may produce:
Clouding of the lens in one or both eyes (cataracts)
High blood sugar, which can trigger or worsen diabetes
Increased risk of infections
Thinning bones (osteoporosis) and fractures
Suppressed adrenal gland hormone production
Thin skin, bruising and slower wound healing
A recent study (full text here) has shown that a group of patients injected with a corticosteroid medication over two years showed no decrease in pain, relative to a group taking placebos. However, the ‘placebo group’ did not suffer the loss of cartilage (indicating progression of the condition) over that period.
From the earliest days of placebo research the practitioner-patient relationship has been at the heart of theorising about its effectiveness in therapy (and in life!)
Here’s an article that explores ‘the conversation’ and its beneficial placebo effects.
” … it’s no surprise that chronic arthritis and back pain are the second and third most common non-acute reasons that people go to the doctor and that pain costs America up to $635 billion annually. The pain remedies developed by the pharmaceutical industry are only modestly effective, and they have side effects that range from nausea and constipation to addiction and death.
What’s often overlooked is that the simple conversation between doctor and patient can be as potent an analgesic as many treatments we prescribe.”
… and …
“It’s clear that how doctors and nurses communicate their treatment can have profound effects on how patients experience the results of that treatment. Yet the conversation between doctors and patients is one of the least valued aspects of medical care. Insurance reimbursements for tests and medical procedures dwarf reimbursements for talking to patients or spending time thinking about what ails them. And the pharmaceutical industry, with its direct-to-consumer advertising, has promulgated the fallacy that every ailment must be met with a pill — brand name, of course.”
In a report published in the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Journals Library, the researchers showed that there is significant evidence to demonstrate that acupuncture provides more than a placebo effect.
Professor of Acupuncture Research, Hugh MacPherson, working with a team of scientists from the UK and US, brought together the results of 29 high quality clinical trials focused on patients treated with acupuncture and standard medical care.
In the majority of these trials, patients with chronic pain treated with acupuncture and standard medical care were tested against those who were provided with standard medical care alone, such as anti-inflammatory drugs and physiotherapy. The trials involved approximately 18,000 patients diagnosed with chronic pain of the neck, lower back, head, and knee.
The report shows that the addition of acupuncture compared to standard medical care alone significantly reduced the number of headaches and migraine attacks and reduced the severity of neck and lower back pain. It also showed that acupuncture reduced the pain and disability of osteoarthritis, which led to patients being less reliant on anti-inflammatory tablets to control pain.
Read the full article here.
Here’s a fascinating story from a writer at the Smithsonian who experienced that the placebo effect is engaged even if you KNOW you’re taking a sugar pill.
“I was in grad school training as a psychotherapist,” (Kelley) told me once, “and I came across a study arguing that antidepressants work just as well as psychotherapy. I didn’t mind that so much, because I like psychotherapy and see its value. But later I found another study showing that antidepressants actually work no better than placebos, and that definitely bothered me. Did this mean that psychotherapy was nothing but a placebo? It took me quite a while to consider the reverse, that placebo is a form of psychotherapy. It’s a psychological mechanism that can be used to help people self-heal. That’s when I knew I wanted to learn more.”
It seems that here at Universal Placebos we’re selling ‘open label’ placebos, that is, placebos explicitly labeled as placebos. It’s so nice that science is catching up!
In his research, which includes a wonderful ‘one person experiment’ designed to use placebos in tackling writer’s block, the author interviews Kathryn Tayo Hall, a geneticist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and ‘sheepishly’ admits to the fact that placebos worked for him.
“Brilliant,” she said, and showed me a box of homeopathic pills she takes to help with pain in her arm from an old injury. “My placebo. The only thing that helps.”
“I don’t have to believe in you,” (the author says directly to his placebo pills), “because you’re going to work anyway.”
A recent meta-study in the World Journal of Gastroenterology (March 28 2017) – Systematic review: The placebo effect of psychological interventions in the treatment of irritable bowel syndrome
Aim – “To determine the placebo response rate associated with different types of placebo interventions used in psychological intervention studies for irritable bowel syndrome.” (Six studies, with a total of 555 patients met the inclusion criteria.)
… and the placebo effect, unsurprisingly, figures significantly:
“Contrary to our expectations, the PRR (Placebo Response Rate) in studies on psychological interventions was comparable to that in studies on pharmacological, dietary and alternative medical interventions.”
Download the whole study in PDF here.